Pressler gets three boxes of especially dry reading

Public broadcasting’s response to a detailed inquiry by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) arrived on Capitol Hill the evening of Feb. 10 [1995], accompanied by three boxes of supporting material.

All but one of the major national organizations submitted responses to the Senate Commerce Committee chairman’s 16-page, single-spaced questionnaire, which included more than 200 questions about the field’s financing, program policies and interrelationships. Pressler earlier had withdrawn some of his queries about political contributions by public broadcasting employees and personal data on NPR staffers.

CPB said collecting the information by the senator’s deadline cost $92,000 for staff time, legal fees and copying.

The field’s own privatization plan, which the senator requested in a letter that accompanied his questionnaire, was not among the documents that the corporation forwarded to the Hill. “While we may differ with you over the feasibility of privatization, I can assure you that we are in the process of seeking alternatives which address the technologies, markets and federal budgetary realities that, as you point out, are markedly different from those that led to the creation of CPB in 1967,” wrote CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen in a letter to Sen. Pressler.

CPB relied on PBS, NPR, APTS and other entities to answer many of the questions. Details about lobbying efforts, talent salaries and handling of controversial programs were referred to “other public broadcasting organizations.” NPR
and APTS did not make their answers available to Current last week. The dry tone of CPB’s 149-page reply makes for dull reading.

Asked how many programs the CPB Board has reviewed for balance and objectivity, the corporation said it has a “two-pronged and contradictory mandate” to facilitate the development of programs and protect the journalistic integrity of public broadcasting. As a result, “the CPB Board has chosen to focus its efforts in three areas: ensuring the widest possible diversity of views in national programming, continuing to develop a systemwide culture of civic and editorial responsibility; and developing processes and attitudes within public broadcasting that can address legitimate and credible criticism.” CPB referred to this response in answering many of the senator’s most pointed questions about balance.

Perhaps the liveliest tidbit in CPB’s response recounts an April 1994 meeting with officers of the Supporters of Public Broadcasting, a Baltimore-based group that wants to start an alternative public radio service. When CPB staffers explained why the corporation declined to fund SPB’s proposed 24-hour service, an unnamed SPB representative “became abusive and insulting,” CPB wrote. “When the abusive behavior continued after efforts by CPB staff to return to the meeting agenda, the meeting was concluded.”

In its 17-page response, PBS tartly answered one of the questionnaire’s more loaded statements–”some critics have argued that personnel in public broadcasting are not taking balance and objectivity seriously.”

“These criticisms are unfounded,” the network replied. “PBS understands that some programs concerning controversial issues will engender differences of opinion and that this is the inevitable consequence of addressing such
issues. … In our experience, ‘some critics’ have never been and never will be satisfied with public broadcasting.”

Pacifica cited its historical opposition to “government intrusion into its editorial decisions,” and League of Women Voters v. FCC in refusing to cooperate with the senator’s query. In that landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that recipients of CPB funds are free to exercise First Amendment rights without government intrusion.

“Your letter to CPB and by extension to Pacifica raises grave questions about the inquiry you are undertaking,” wrote Pat Scott, Pacifica’s acting executive director, in a letter to Pressler. “Issues concerning program content and past employment, particularly those associated with Pacifica, are repugnant to us and contrary to the charter protecting public broadcasting from government influence.”

Pressler’s query also drew a rebuke from William F. Buckley Jr. “If some of the questions, freighted as they are with insinuation, were investigated as exhaustively as the question, ‘Where was O.J. between 10 and 10:15 on the night of June 12, 1994 and what was he doing?” the questionnaire might be filed back to Pressler’s grandson,” wrote Buckley in his syndicated column Feb. 12.

“Pressler, whatever the soundness of his objectives, is engaged in Orwellian persecution, pure and simple.”

RELATED COMMENTARY

PBS President Ervin Duggan’s remarks at the National Press
Club, January 1995.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT