News - Their master's voice

Tom Murphy was ripe for a documentary, but not one from GPTV

Last year, Susan Hoffman had occasion to interview Tom Murphy on-camera for Lawmakers, the Georgia Public Television program that covers developments at the state Capitol. What was meant to be a quick 10-minute soundbite with the House speaker turned into 30 minutes of tape. It gave Hoffman an idea.

For almost 40 years, the people of Haralson County had sent Murphy back to the Capitol election after election. But now, some chinks were appearing in the armor. In 2000, a well-funded Republican challenger, Bill Heath, came within 500 votes of upsetting Murphy. Murphy himself was turning 77 in March last year — still ornery, but slowing down enough to make politicos wonder if this might be his last term in office.

Hoffman returned from the interview convinced that Murphy's life was great fodder for a documentary. Here was a man, after all, who had served under eight governors, whose grip on power had held strong even as the House evolved from an all-white boys' club, who is the longest-serving speaker of any state House in the country.

There was a problem, though: Georgia Public Television is, after all, public television. As such, it relies to a great degree on tax dollars for its livelihood. At the state level, almost no one has tighter control of those purse strings than Tom Murphy. And House leaders haven't exactly been modest in exercising their power over Georgia Public Broadcasting, of which GPTV is a part. In 1994, GPTV aired Tales of the City, a six-part series on gay life that featured nudity and some profanities. Not surprisingly, GPTV caught hell from legislators. A month after the show aired, the powerful House Appropriations Committee, over which Murphy exercises vast control, declined then-Gov. Zell Miller's request for a $20 million new production facility for GPTV. Just weeks later, a behind-the-scenes deal engineered in part by Murphy revived the funding. But the message to GPTV was clear: Air controversial programming at your own peril.

"I'm sure the producers were well aware that Murphy holds life and death over their budget," says Bill Shipp, a longtime Georgia journalist whom Hoffman would interview for the Murphy documentary. "They obviously would not want to do anything to offend him. If you're going to do a documentary on your boss, you're not gonna say he's a schmuck."

To make matters more potentially unpleasant, GPTV needed funding for the project. Donations came in from companies such as BellSouth, Publix, Coca-Cola, Wachovia, Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia. Not surprisingly, all these groups employ lobbyists to push their agendas with legislators.

"I made the decision as a public affairs guy that [the documentary] was a worthwhile project and appropriate tribute," says Charlie Harman, vice president for public affairs for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia, which ponied up $5,000 to GPTV for the project. Harman is a longtime lobbyist with close ties to House leaders. "There's at least 65 bills before the Georgia General Assembly that have to do with health care. ... That's not why we contribute to Georgia Public Television."

Hoffman wasn't naive. She told Murphy that GPTV would need to raise money for the project from a variety of sources.

"He said, 'Shop it wherever you want. I am not beholden to anyone.'" She also told Murphy she would be seeking out his critics — who are legion — including Shipp. Murphy didn't object.

Still, it wasn't the speaker who stood to lose here, but Hoffman. "As soon as the mainstream press heard that we were doing a biography on the man, they made immediate assumptions," she says. "I was under a lot of pressure to make sure it was accurate, to make sure it was balanced. It was with great care, painstaking care that I weighed most every word for that very reason."

Speaker of the House: The Thomas B. Murphy Story, which premiered on GPTV last month, looks great. It features wonderful archival footage of 40 years of Georgia political history. There are dramatic re-enactments in black and white. Much is made of Murphy's early years — his stint in the Navy during World War II, his early career as a lawyer, his close relationship with his wife and his handicapped brother. You get to hear him sing along in a rocking chair to "Your Cheatin' Heart," a treat that apparently he shares only with fellow Democrats. (Asked by Hoffman if he's heard Murphy sing, Republican Congressman Johnny Isakson says, "Sing? No, ma'am. I don't think so. ... I think he could try and all the Democrats would certainly listen and applaud, I'll tell you that.")

But the picture the documentary paints of Murphy is hardly a complete one. While the narration makes frequent mention of Murphy's irascibility, that commentary is tempered by an admiration of his durability. Critical voices such as Shipp's — who calls Murphy "intimidating" and "bullying" in the film — are included, but only fleetingly. Even Zell Miller, Murphy's long-time nemesis, comes across as if he and Murphy go fishing every weekend.

"It was uncritical," says Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "The way that he got to power was a real, definable understandable process that other legislators studied and have referred to." Murphy welded north Georgia legislators into a unit early on, forming a caucus that helped him establish a base of what Herring calls "basically invulnerable power."

But to Hoffman, such in-depth political analysis was never the point. Speaker of the House "is a biography on the man and what shaped him. If I were doing a show on Georgia politics, it would have been a very different show."

Unfortunately, Georgia politics and Tom Murphy are hopelessly intertwined. But there's a bigger picture. The problem crystallized in the Murphy documentary is one all too familiar to public television. On the one hand, public broadcasting's role is to serve the public, which often means casting a critical eye on government. On the other hand, its very survival depends on that government's largesse. Unless there is enough of a political — and financial — buffer between public television and the politicians it covers, efforts like Hoffman's are doomed from the start.

Go to www.gpb.org/gptv/programs/ specials/speaker.php to view Speaker of the House: The Thomas B. Murphy Story online.??

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