For None of the Children

Documentary about the end of segregation faces segregation

Photo by Jessica CalkinsSandra Robbie had big plans for 2004. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case, and Robbie was banking on that event to boost her recent Emmy-winning documentary, Méndez vs. Westminster: For All the Children, Para Todos los Niños.

But the pending sale of KOCE-TV—Robbie's employer and Orange County's only PBS affiliate—may quash her plans.

Robbie hoped the Huntington Beach-based station would promote the 30-minute Para Todos los Niños among its PBS sister stations. The timing seemed perfect: while arguing for Brown, attorney (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall cited Méndez vs. Westminster, the 1947 case filed by Westminster parents Gonzalo and Felicitas Méndez that ended segregation in California.

"I can't believe that KOCE is about to be sold right when we're on the verge of national attention for the documentary," Robbie said. "Without KOCE, it would not have received the attention it has gotten. And with KOCE gone, it won't."

The homegrown development of Robbie's documentary is perhaps the best argument for the station's current owners, the Coast Community College District (CCCD), to sell KOCE to an owner committed to public broadcasting. Robbie started interning at KOCE during the summer of 2000 while attending TV-production courses at Golden West College. Her enthusiasm and editing skill soon impressed Ed Miskevich, assistant station manager and director of broadcasting for KOCE.

"After the end of her internship, she began volunteering on her own accord," Miskevich said. "She had excelled beyond the normal interns. I was getting the right feedback from news directors. As time went by, we felt she was doing too much with us free of charge and felt it was right and fair to make her a person with a phone and desk."

Miskevich hired Robbie in May of last year as a producer and part-time reporter for the KOCE public-affairs program Real Orange.While still a volunteer, however, Robbie suggested the Méndez vs. Westminster story to Miskevich as a 10-minute segment on Real Orange. Miskevich refused. Sort of.

"When she pitched me the idea, I thought, 'You mean to say this little court case ended discrimination in California? Wow!'" Miskevich recalled with a laugh. "We had to make it a full documentary. She had the passion to do it, and we trusted that she could do it."

KOCE agreed to sponsor the documentary with the understanding that Robbie would receive zero financing. But the station did allow her unlimited access to KOCE's editing room, camera operators and other equipment, and it committed itself to promoting Para Todos los Niños on the airwaves. Robbie filmed, edited and finished the project in six months.

Para Todos los Niños first aired on KOCE on Sept. 24, 2002, and immediately received accolades for its well-paced, informative treatment of the complex Méndez vs. Westminstersaga. The documentary went on to win Robbie and executive producers Miskevich and Maria Hall-Brown a Golden Mike award and the local Emmy for Best Arts and Culture Feature.

The positive feedback filled Robbie with hopes of creating an entire educational curriculum surrounding the film, complete with website, book and video. She was set to go on a barnstorming tour of school districts across the nation in the coming year.

However, Miskevich and Robbie say the sale of the station to a non-PBS affiliate—top bidders are televangelists—would kill the project in the cradle. Miskevich pointed to the website of leading KOCE bidder Daystar Television Network (www.daystar.com), a televangelist network offering $20 million for the station and thought to be the strongest winner. According to the site, Daystar only considers "born-again Christian believers for employment."

"I'd be out of a job," said Miskevich, who like Robbie and most of the planet has not been born again. "I suspect most of the CCCD wouldn't fit those qualifications. That's what's shocking to me. They're open about their proudly being discriminatory. And they'd never support efforts such as ours."

In the meanwhile, the station allowed Robbie to host her own personal, on-air fund drive on Sept. 17, when she hosted a screening of Para Todos los Niños and pleaded with viewers to save KOCE.

"That's what KOCE has the power to do—allow stories like the Méndez case to be known," Robbie said. "But if the station loses its PBS affiliation, it won't happen anymore. Other people don't have the passion for our community like we do. This is what KOCE is all about."

 
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