The filmmaker Robert Greenwald and others on the political left say real-life stories dealing with issues like gay rights, racial profiling and environmental pollution are needed in an era of conservative political leadership. To that end, Mr. Greenwald has helped the Sierra Club and the American Civil Liberties Union create their own television series. The two liberal groups see this as only the beginning of more such shows to get their messages out.
"The Sierra Club Chronicles" is a monthly series consisting of seven half-hour episodes on topics like the lingering effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and how air pollution affected workers at ground zero in New York City. It had its national premiere on the Link TV satellite channel last month; a new episode will be broadcast Sunday night on that network.
Dune Lankard, an Alaskan environmental activist, is featured in an episode of "The Sierra Club Chronicles." (Photo: Sierra Club)
Both Court TV and Link are now showing "The ACLU Freedom Files," a series of 10 30-minute episodes featuring real cases like that of Lindsay Earls, the Oklahoma high school student who ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court to challenge mandatory drug testing by schools. The next new episode will be broadcast on Court TV on March 11. Link will show two "Files" episodes tonight at 10. The series is also shown on Zilo TV, a college education network that provides programming to more than 5.5 million students across the country.
"This is a beginning," Mr. Greenwald, the producer and director of the documentaries "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and "Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price," said of the two shows.
"The constant conversation we were having," he said of people on the left, "was, we need to buy a television studio. We've been slow in putting in the energy and the resources. But now there are 15 to 20 documentaries coming out on the war, and I believe we'll see the same thing with a growing number of TV series."
The two shows come less than a year after Al Gore helped found Current TV, a cable and satellite channel aimed at people between the ages of 18 and 34, of which he is chairman. The channel relies on its viewers to submit both raw and edited videos for most of its content.
The Sierra Club bills itself as the country's oldest, largest and most influential environmental organization, with more than 750,000 members. The American Civil Liberties Union, which describes itself as working to protect Constitutional rights, was founded in 1920 and has more than 550,000 members.
Mr. Greenwald produced "Chronicles" (which cost the Sierra Club $750,000 for all seven episodes) through his company, Brave New Films. He said he came up with the idea for "Freedom Files" after talking with Anthony D. Romero, the A.C.L.U.'s executive director, about ways to get the group's message out.
"It's the first television series produced by a civil rights-civil liberties organization," Mr. Romero said. "I think the conservative voices have been more predominant because they are effective in using the media.
"The free exchange of ideas is premised on as many voices speaking out as possible," he continued.
The shows cost the A.C.L.U. $2.2 million, Mr. Romero said, with $1.6 million for production expenses and $600,000 for promotion. They are shown as part of Court TV's issue-related public affairs initiative, "In Pursuit of Justice."
"It's important we put these issues under the light of scrutiny," said Henry Schleiff, the chairman and chief executive of Court TV. "It's less about somebody's political or societal motivation," he said, adding that Court TV welcomed programs from across the political spectrum.
Not everyone has applauded the idea. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research institute that is part of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said that partisan organizations with their own shows just confuse viewers seeking unbiased information.
"It's become an article of faith on the left that the media is now dominated by the right, the same way that a decade ago the conservatives felt the reverse," Mr. Rosenstiel said in an interview. "This move to create a new media by political groups on the left should be no more welcome to citizens than the rise of an N.R.A. radio network or video news releases secretly sent to TV stations by the Bush administration."
But Ken Bode, a veteran television journalist and a visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., said he saw nothing wrong with the two organizations deciding to help themselves actively to the airwaves.
"It speaks to the fact that there is a vacuum of serious journalism about the complicated issues the Sierra Club is interested in and the A.C.L.U. is interested in," Mr. Bode said. "Any time you have any organization putting responsible opinions before the public, I think it enriches the debate, rather than diminishes it. Anyone who takes the time to watch a program like that, they know the views of the A.C.L.U. or the Sierra Club."
Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said that there was room for programming with a point of view. "I don't believe the only space for communication should be 'on the one hand and on the other hand,' " Mr. Pope said. "There should be a space for advocates that is unfiltered, as well as a space where advocates' voices are balanced."
"Five years ago, our model was to produce something and get PBS to air it," he said. "The whole idea that the progressive movement needs to produce their own programming has taken greater hold."
Link TV, which broadcasts "Chronicles," is a noncommercial, independent network available in more than 26 million homes on the DirecTV and Dish satellite services.
In one episode of "Chronicles," "9/11 Forgotten Heroes," viewers hear iron workers and paramedics talk about medical problems caused by the foul air at the site where the World Trade Center fell.
"What I want to ask Congress is, 'Why are they leaving us like this?' " says a choked-up Mike McCormack, a ground zero rescue worker. He talks about pulling the flag that flew from a tower out from the rubble. "We're just as American as everybody else," he says.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company