By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
BIRMINGHAM— The Alabama Educational Television Commission (AETC),voted 6-0 on Tuesday to hire the Birmingham law firm of Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff & Brandt to represent it in a lawsuit filed by former Alabama Public Television executive director Allan Pizzato.
In July, Pizatto filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County Circuit Court against AETC and its board members. In the complaint Pizatto seeks:
declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, and such further and other relief as the Court deems appropriate
A ruling from the court to declare [Commission Chairman Ferris] Stephens service on the Commission is illegal and to invalidate all actions by the Commission since the time Stephens was appointed, because as assistant attorney general for Alabama, his service on the commission violates the law (no member of the commission may concurrently be a public office holder).
Pizatto and his surrogates have alleged that he was fired because certain AETC commissioners wanted him to air religious programing by minister and conservative activist David Barton.
The board has repeatedly denied that this was the reason for Pizatto and chief financial officer Pauline Howland termination.
The firestorm surrounding the firing was first kindled by a blogger at CurrentPublicMedia.com, which according to its website is “An editorially independent service of the American University school of communication.”
Members of the board who voted 5-2 for dismissal of the pair have repeatedly said that the firing was based on the fact that the board wanted a “new direction” and “new leadership.”
Yet, the story of secular liberalism verses conservative Christianity has been the angle reported on blogs and even in the mainstream media.
Again today, Stephens said, “That [the Barton issue] was never considered. I know that keeps getting reported, but it’s not true.”
However, the line first reported by the out of state university blog has ruled on news reports. Currents report said, “[Pauline] Howland, deputy director and chief financial officer, described the firings in an interview with Current and said she was ‘baffled’ by the dismissals. But she also recalled how Pizzato had asked staff in April for advice about a series of videos that AETC commissioners wanted APT to air.” The series according to Current was, “The American Heritage Series,” a 10-part DVD series offered by Barton’s Texas-based organization WallBuilders LLC who claims “presents America’s forgotten history and heroes, emphasizing the moral, religious and constitutional foundation on which America was built.”
AETC commissioner Dr. Rodney Herring does not shy away from the fact that he is a Christian conservative, but adds, “That was not the reason for the dismissals.”
He says that there had been talk about the series and that Allan Pizzato and staff had been asked to review one of the shows in the series, not the whole series.
“Did we talk about the American Heritage Series [with Pizzato]? Yes,” says Herring. “Did he talk about the whole ten hours of programing? No.”
Herring reiterates that the blogs and news media made this the story and that the work of David Barton’s group was not under consideration in the dismissal of Pizzato and Howland.
“I told everyone in the news media who called me what happened but they wrote what they wanted to write and not the facts,” Herring said.
Herring believes that once the story line became sensationalized as “Christian conservative versus the Media” that every news outlet followed that line of reporting and not the facts.
According to Herring, the termination did not have to do with programing but over concerns of “leadership.”
According to the blog report and other media outlets, “…Pizzato [APTV’s director] and his staff had ‘grave concerns’ that the videos were inappropriate for public broadcasting due to their religious nature,” Howland said.
Yet according to the same report, “Pizzato declined to discuss the videos, or how he responded to the commission’s request that APT schedule them for broadcast.”
At the time Pizzato said that the reason for his departure was, “irreconcilable difference” and that he served at “the pleasure of the board,” but has since that statement filed a lawsuit against the very board whose pleasure it was to fire him.
The board’s 5-2 vote was not unanimous only because two members wanted disciplinary actions taken against the two and not firings.
Several members of the fundraising arm of APT resigned after the firings of Pizzato and Howland, Judge Vanzetta McPherson was among them. Judge McPherson, who serves as a sometimes columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser became so embroiled in the controversy that she wrote that Pizzato’s interim replacement Don Boomershine, was at the board meeting about Pizzato when in fact Boomershine did not come to the APT office until the next day. This is also part of the story that has been repeated falsely by the media.
Currently, the AETC is conducting a national search to fill the executive director position.