PBS broadcast two documentaries last night that demonstrated the value of good journalism, the importance of people as individuals, why television can be an effective tool for investing issues with a sense of immediacy and significance (without being sensationalistic)—and why PBS is important.
The first was an episode of Frontline, a consistently good documentary series produced in Boston and Berkeley/San Francisco (along with Frontline/World). The episode, entitled “Sex Slaves,” examined the trafficking of often unwitting, often very poor women from Ukraine and Moldova to Istanbul, detailing the methods that traffickers use to smuggle and enslave them. The filmmakers interviewed women who had managed to free themselves from this imprisonment, and followed an Odessa bartender as he posed as a trafficker in an attempt to free his wife from a violent Istanbul pimp—she had been sold into slavery for $1,000 by an acquaintance while in Istanbul to purchase merchandise for her mother’s shop. (Women are often put onto the path to slavery by someone they know, one of those dark rules of thumb like how murder victims tend to know their killers or car accidents usually occur near home). I recommend a viewing if you happen to catch a rerun; it isn’t available to watch online. However, Frontline currently has 52 other episodes available to watch online worth checking out.
The second documentary was “Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power.” It profiled Robert Williams, a civil rights activist and NAACP organizer from North Carolina who in 1959 began to encourage African Americans to consider using guns to protect themselves against racism since law enforcement and the judicial system would not: “I made a statement that if the law, if the United States Constitution cannot be enforced in this social jungle called Dixie, it is time that Negroes must defend themselves even if it is necessary to resort to violence.” Williams was disowned by the NAACP and Freedom Riders visited his town of Monroe, North Carolina, to demonstrate the power of passive (i.e., nonviolent resistance). Unfortunately, the Freedom Riders were attacked by the local Ku Klux Klan, local citizens, and local police, and had to retreat to the protection of Williams and his Black Guard. And then, as the Web site puts it, “Amid the chaos, Williams sheltered a white couple from an African American mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them.” He and his family, pursued by the government and the Klan, gained asylum in Cuba, where he developed an uncomfortable relationship with Castro and broadcast “Radio Free Dixie;” then Communist China where he spent time with Mao and Chou En Lai. His philosophy helped inspire the Black Power Movement, but when Williams returned to America (charges dropped and a subject of great interest to the State Department for his insight into China) he focused almost exclusively on discussing China.
The thematic importance of each of these shows, besides their actual subjects, is the idea, always visible, that people matter. That one man, Williams, can make a difference, can jump into the debate on race and then as easily “retire” from it. Or that subjects still as abstract to so many as civil rights or the sex trade are made up of the experiences of millions of people. Sex trafficking and enslavement entails finding one woman or girl, kidnapping her, selling her, raping her (often infecting her with STDs), beating her, prostituting her, confining her, attacking her mental health. And then doing all that again and again to one woman after another (occasionally killing one to make an example of her) until there are a million or more around the world, including an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 women trafficked in the U.S. each year. And similar is probably happening in other forms of human trafficking and smuggling. Reminds one of Stalin’s assertion that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
But why do these programs show PBS is important? Because by striving for a wide-ranging format, people might see programs like these that they might otherwise not see. There is still a place for the general interest media outlet, and PBS is one of the best, featuring “children’s, cultural, educational, history, nature, news, public affairs, science and skills programming,” according to its Web site. In an increasingly stratified media world, it’s hard to know where to look to find something new and worthwhile. And that’s the problem with the idea that everything—magazine, television channels, your entire online experience—should be completely, carefully tailored to your taste, that everything should be filtered down to only what you thought mattered to you. You lose that sense of surprise. You forget that browser’s satisfaction.
Granted, not everything on PBS is to my taste, and I find some content thoroughly numbing. But I’m willing to look past all that as a good partisan raised on PBS: from Sesame Street, the Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and WonderWorks productions to Nature, Nova, the American Experience, and Frontline.