A documentary film about a transgender woman in Hawaii that has received awards and won wide praise is being cited by a Republican congressman as a waste of government money and a reason to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for eliminating funding for CPB, which uses federal support to help fund National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. The administration also wants to cut all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
IndieWire reported late last month that the CPB head heard “mostly support” from congressional members in attendance. But that was not the case with Harris, who in addition to dissing “Kumu Hina” also identified the documentaries “The New Black” and “Baby Mama High” as inappropriate for government funding.
“When you produce shows like ‘Kumu Hina,’ almost a third-of-a-million-dollar investment, or ‘Baby Mama High’ (which cost) $50,000 … I have to respond to people in my district … and in fact they would resent if I was publicly funding that,” Harris said.
Harris suggested that the CPB had a political agenda in supporting the films.
Stories About Women Of Color
“Kumu Hina,” released in 2014, chronicles a year in the life of Honolulu resident Hina Wong-Kalu, a Native Hawaiian mahu, or transgender person. As a kumu (“teacher” and “community leader”), Wong-Kalu uses traditional culture to inspire her students.
“Baby Mama High,” released in 2013, is about the large number of American Latina teens who become pregnant, while “The New Black,” released in 2013, explores the battle for marriage equality in African-American communities.
“I can’t explain to the people in my district why CPB invested $302,000 in ‘Kumu Hina,'” Harris said. “You give me the explanation, how I go to my constituents and say that was a good investment of their tax dollars. I’m in a highly Republican, conservative district.”
Last week, the directors of all three films — including Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, who produced and directed “Kumu Hina” — issued a statement in response to Harris. They said the congressman unfairly attacked and mischaracterized their work.
“Each of these films focused on different stories about women of color in America,” they wrote. “We encourage viewers who appreciate seeing these and other stories of diverse, independent voices on public TV to contact their representatives. You may wish to tell Rep. Harris that you support the CPB by contacting him directly: https://harris.house.gov/contact-me.”
Hamer and Wilson, who live on Oahu’s North Shore, rejected Harris’ notion of a subversive agenda for the films.
In addition to national broadcast on “Independent Lens,” Wilson said, the Hawaii film “remains available for classroom use in public schools, colleges and universities across the country, being used primarily to help students training to become teachers deepen their understanding of diversity and inclusion.”
Said Hamer: “I think the only agenda behind ‘Kumu Hina’ is to let people know the true meaning of aloha, and to educate students about the real history of Hawaii.”
Hamer said that PBS plays an important role in Hawaii because the islands are isolated from the rest of the United States.
He noted that Wong-Kalu, commonly known as Hina, is now teaching cultural empowerment at the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the Halawa Correctional Facility. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the jail and prison populations.
Wilson said this about Harris’s criticism:
The thing that we don’t want to be missed in this little kerfuffle is the way in which these inflammatory attacks, even when seemingly isolated or ineffective, are in their aggregate aimed at undermining public confidence in, and thereby support for, our public media, a unique outlet that helps to ensure that the full diversity of our communities are included in national conversations on the most important issues of the day, regardless of commercial appeal.
He added, “Such attacks also divert attention from the educational value added by CPB’s relatively small investments in the production of content that would likely otherwise not see the light of day.”
According to its website, CBP has “been the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services” since 1968.
CPB estimates that about $1.35 per American is spent per year to provide “essential operational support for the nearly 1,500 locally-owned and -operated public television and radio stations, which reach virtually every household in the country.”
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The organization’s total funding request for fiscal year 2018 is $445 million, with most of it going to public television and radio stations and programming.
Many of those groups have other funding support — for example, funding from CPB makes up less than 1 percent of NPR’s annual operating budget.