brucekluger.com

    USA Today, January 31, 2005

    When politics, fear and funding cook a rabbit

    By Bruce Kluger


    First, they tell us SpongeBob's gay. Then,
    just when we think it's safe to go back in the
    water...

    Last week, Education Secretary Margaret
    Spellings began her new job with a bang,
    firing off a letter of reprimand to PBS over its
    plans to air a controversial episode of
    Postcards from Buster, a clever new travel
    show for kids featuring the cheerful, asthma-
    plagued bunny who co-stars on the popular
    cartoon, Arthur.

    Throughout the season, Buster has been on
    a tear across the USA, sending back live-
    action video correspondences to delighted
    couch-potato-tots at home, in the process teaching them about geography, culture
    and the glorious diversity of the American family.

    Included in Buster's 24-state itinerary have been visits with Utah Mormons,
    Wyoming Indians and Muslims, Jews, Hmong, Christian fundamentalists and even a
    clan of nine who live in a Virginia Beach trailer.

    But then Buster got to Vermonthome of former presidential candidate Howard
    Dean, sap trees and same-sex civil unions. That's when the rabbit pellets hit the fan.

    According to the few who have actually seen the as-yet-unaired episode, Buster
    settles in with a family of children whose parents are lesbians. No mention is made
    of the moms' sexuality, though the couple does appear to be lovinghanging with
    the kids, puttering around the kitchen and leading a bonfire celebration to welcome
    the dawn of spring. Racy stuff, right?

    Produced by the acclaimed WGBH in Boston, the episode's concept was approved
    by top administrators at PBS last fall. All agreed that the inclusion of a same-sex
    couple was consistent with the show's mission to depict a kid's-eye-view of
    American lifestyles.

    But then Madame Secretary came on board and busted Buster.

    "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles
    portrayed in this episode," Spellings wrote to PBS President Pat Mitchell. She also
    asked that PBS consider refunding the federal money it had earmarked for that
    episode.

    Enter morality watchdog James Dobson of the group Focus on the Family, whose
    increasing stridency has begun to make former Georgia senator Zell Miller look like
    he's on sedatives. Naturally, Dobson shouted amen on behalf of Spellings' rebuke.
    So PBS threw in the towel, announcing it would not distribute the episode to its 350
    stations.

    Just as I had done the previous week in the wake of the SpongeBob fiasco, I began
    calling around to suss out the source of the cartoon typhoon, but I quickly learned
    that the two brouhahas were nothing alike. Whereas SpongeGate had erupted as a
    result of preposterous gay-baiting by a cast of dogged evangelicals bent on
    replacing the Stars-and-Stripes with the Shroud of Turin, the Buster scandal was
    steeped in a thick soup of politics, funding and fear.

    When I asked Brigid Sullivan, vice president of children's programming at WGBH,
    why PBS had suddenly changed its mind about the episode, she said flatly, "You'll
    have to ask them."

    When I did just that, PBS' senior veep for programming, John Wilson, said that
    although the episode looked good on paper, its execution had prompted second
    thoughts, especially in light of the "grown-ups and other constituencies who needed
    to be considered before the show got in front of kids."

    And, like everyone else I had spoken with, Wilson didn't seem very happy talking
    about what was supposed to be a happy show.

    In the end, WGBH has decided to air the Vermont episode anywaywithout the
    PBS seal of approvaland offer it to member stations, who can then make their
    own decision on the matter.

    To my mind, that's been the only courageous stand taken so far in this whole
    misguided mess. Good parenting relies on telling the truth to kidsnot hiding it
    and I applaud WGBH for following its heart and trusting in the untainted decency of
    children.

    Kids can find joy in the most unfamiliar places. Even a cartoon rabbit knows that.


    (Illustration of Buster by Marc Brown)