Arizona Documentary Shows the State of PBS

By Jerry Kammer on January 31, 2014

One scene in a recent PBS documentary on Arizona's battle over illegal immigration shows a man walking his bike past a street demonstration. "Follow the law!" he yells to the crowd, "Acclimate to the country!"

But that's not what he said according to the subtitle provided by the filmmakers to compensate for the marginal sound quality. In a mistake that somehow made it past the independent moviemakers and the review process at PBS, the subtitle reports that he shouted "Go back to your country!"

It was an honest mistake, I am sure. But it was a sloppy mistake that should have never made it past the first edit, much less the final screening by the people at PBS who decided to make it available to stations across the country. And it was all too fitting as a metaphor of PBS deafness in its reporting on those who are upset by illegal immigration.

PBS has a record of slighting the legitimate concerns of Arizonans and others who are so upset about the wave of mass illegal immigration into the state that they have supported local enforcement measures that — in my opinion — have sometimes been misguided and misapplied.

The record also includes work, now including this new documentary, that has devoted careful and considerate attention to presenting the plight of those who are targeted for enforcement. Those targets have included Mexican American citizens or permanent residents who are justifiably angry that they have been subjected to what a federal judge called racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz.

In other words, PBS has done a great job with half of the story and a miserable job with the other half. To paraphrase Paul Simon, PBS hears what it wants to hear and disregards the rest.

A Sad Commentary on the State of PBS

That is why I think this latest documentary, which is titled "The State of Arizona", is a sad commentary on the state of PBS.

The documentary has received mixed reviews. It was called "relatively even-handed" in the Los Angeles Times. Well, maybe, if your other points of reference are the National Council of La Raza or America's Voice or the Southern Poverty Law Center or editorials in the New York Times. We have written about them here and here and here.

I agree with the assessment of syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, who was a colleague when he worked at the Arizona Republic in the late 1990s. Of filmmakers Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini, he wrote, "They needed to get beyond their liberal politics and think outside the box."

But liberal politics are clearly the Sandoval-Tambini home turf. They show admirable compassion for illegal immigrants and they provide some truly moving moments that show the plight of those caught up in the immigration dragnet of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

One powerful scene, set against the flashing lights of three sheriff deputies' vehicles stopped for an arrest, shows a young woman, wrists handcuffed behind her back, anguish engraved in her face. Tears glisten on her cheeks. Somber music underscores the pathos of the scene as she is loaded into a sheriff's van.

We also learn the story of Jorge Martinez, who proudly says that during his 15 years of illegal residence he has never once sought a dollar of public support. And we meet his life partner and their son, who see an abyss opening before them when he is arrested. His attorney explains that because Jorge had previously been expelled from the country under expedited removal proceedings, his return to the country has put him into a particularly perilous situation. Illegally crossing the border after expedited removal is a felony. The documentary doesn't report that unpleasant fact.

But instead of being deported, Martinez is released on humanitarian grounds, so that he can pursue his case for relief outside of detention. The filmmakers are there for his reunion with his family, providing another moving and memorable scene.

Where the film fails — and fails badly — is in its lack of anything more than pro-forma, check-the-box interest in why so many Arizonans are upset about the influx of illegal immigrants into their state. That is inexcusable in an 85-minute documentary that boasts it is the result of three years' work in the state.

An Illusory Moment of Promise

There is an illusory moment of promise near the start, when onto the screen comes this boldface statistic "Between 1996 and 2009, Arizona's illegal immigrant population grew by 300 percent to an estimated 460,000 people."

That is a central fact, loaded with significance for daily life of Arizona, especially in Maricopa County, where many of the newcomers — mostly poor and poorly educated — are concentrated. But Sandoval and Tambini do nothing with it. They leave it lifeless, bloodless, four lines of white type, a two dimensional graphic set against the scene of the young woman being loaded into the sheriff's van.

Instead of an effort to understand the quotidian concerns about illegal immigration, what we hear are the grousing of several activists. Prominent among them the grim architect of anti-illegal immigration legislation Russell Pearce, whose obsession with the issue became so off-putting and divisive that he was recalled from office.

Also representing the dark side in what Navarrette criticizes as an oversimplified "story of villains and heroes" is a Kathryn Kobor, a senior citizen with a benevolent face and a sincere yearning for the old days, when she got along fine with neighbors who were "illegal Hispanics". Like Pearce, Kobor is locked in the past, and she is all but tattooed with the label of "nice old lady but out of touch".

But the documentary is nowhere near as interested in the effects of illegal immigration on the life of ordinary Arizonans as it is in the effects of law enforcement on illegal immigrants.

While Sandoval and Tambini briefly show a contractor who mildly complains about being undercut by competitors who pay their workers $8 an hour, they do nothing to illustrate the urgency of such concerns. They skip past anxieties about the widespread dependence on welfare that is available to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrant parents. They visit no hospital or school or neighborhood stressed by the influx. They reveal nothing about strains on the state's terrible fiscal condition. They appear to have done little research or investigation.

For several years, the Arizona air has pulsated with the nitty-gritty reality of such concerns. Yet this documentary doesn't deal with it.

Their Ears Aren't Tuned to That Frequency

I think I understand why. It is just not part of their sensibility. Their ears aren't tuned to that frequency. They can't process those signals. It's all white noise to them.

Of course, since this is public television, and these concerns are a major component of public concerns, their absence had to be an issue for the gatekeepers at PBS. That is why, I suspect, the film was introduced with a statement intended to inoculate everyone against the sort of criticism I'm presenting here.

"It's easy to chalk Arizona's immigration battle to racial tension. For many citizens, however, the issues are more than skin deep. Legal residents are worried about their jobs, how many people their government can support, and the threatening violence of drug trafficking. On the other side are the undocumented who are searching for a better life. Hanging in the balance is our shared definition of what it means to be an American."

But the pre-emptive assertion of journalistic integrity doesn't give bona fides to a film that is so slanted in one direction and so incurious about the other.

The film provides a good view of the humanity and the daily concerns of one side. The other is reduced to caricature and talking heads. Sandoval and Tambini could have done this for one of the shout fests on MSNBC.

If you have any doubt about the bias of this "independent lens" and its disregard for differing views, just take a gander at the discussion guide.

And oh, what a guide to PBS-approved discussion it is. In addition to links to such independent institutions as the Pew Hispanic Center and Brookings, you'll find links to the National Council of La Raza, Center for American Progress, and America's Voice. You certainly won't find a link to CIS or any other group that raises the sort of questions that this documentary purports to take seriously, but presents only superficially, half-heartedly, and with superficial curiosity.

The late Ann Richards, in a speech mocking the rhetorical clumsiness of 1988 presidential candidacy of George H.W. Bush, famously said, "Poor George He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

With a nod to that classic moment in American political life, I end with this: "Poor PBS. They can't help it. They just don't know what they can't hear."

UPDATE: For more on this story see, "PBS Corrects the Documentary Record".