The same week former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson resigned from the CPB Board, public TV stations received a low-key announcement that the Wall Street Journal would soon end production of the conservative news analysis series he aggressively championed.
The controversy over how it came to PBS — especially as details of the process were revealed last week — demonstrated that when politics enters pubTV editorial decisions, none of the players emerges unscathed.
Producers for Dow Jones Television, an affiliate of the Journal, initially didn’t explain why they canned the show, but in an unsigned op-ed Nov. 17, Journal editorial page editors who appear on the program denied any connection between the cancellation and the finding of CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz that Tomlinson acted improperly to bring the series to PBS.
“We’re proud of the Journal Editorial Report, which has done well in the ratings despite being blackballed by some of the largest PBS stations,” the Journal boasted.
The right-wing journalists’ apparent view that Tomlinson helped them get airtime against the will of public TV leaders resembles the suspicions of lefties and others that he twisted PBS’s arm.
Indeed, in a December 2003 e-mail to Paul Gigot, editor of the Journal editorial page, Tomlinson said he was “trying to pressure [PBS President] Pat Mitchell to produce a real conservative counterpoint to Moyers. Would you be available for such an effort[?]” Gigot became host of the show when it debuted 10 months later.
But the Journal commentary did not remark on the intramural tensions between Mitchell, with her longtime interest in expanding public affairs programming, and the many station execs who were equally opposed to added talking heads.
The Journal, secure in its view that Tomlinson had done nothing wrong as its advocate, released chummy e-mails between Tomlinson and Gigot about Tomlinson’s hopes for the new program and his deep distrust of Mitchell. The e-mails were posted on the newspaper’s OpinionJournal.com website, linked to its commentary.
The options presented to Gigot included booking him as a regular guest on Now with Bill Moyers, or giving him his own show, according to the e-mails. When Mitchell suggested that the Journal’s TV producers work with her staff to create a new show, both Gigot and Tomlinson liked the idea.
“I do not trust Pat Mitchell but I have a deal with others stipulating that you will have access to the same deal Moyers has,” Tomlinson wrote in January 2004. “So do not accept if they try to toss you onto Moyers’ show as an after-thought commentator.”
That month Gigot received an invitation from Moyers and Mitchell to appear regularly on Now, according to an e-mail from Gigot. “My instinct is to meet with them and suggest something more. Any advice?” he asked Tomlinson.
“This could be fun. But watch Pat, she is as slick as grease [sic] lightning,” Tomlinson wrote, one day before Mitchell met with Gigot and Journal TV executive Kathryn Christensen.
During the Feb. 6 meeting, Mitchell “pushed my participation with Moyers hard,” Gigot wrote later, but she also proposed creating a stand-alone show for the Journal’s editors.
“My strategy on [M]oyers will be to sound him out, and maybe do a show or two to see how it goes,” Gigot wrote to Tomlinson. “I figure if I cooperate with him and Pat, maybe we’ll have a better chance of getting a show of our own.”
Gigot appeared on Now three times in 2004, according to Moyers and Now Executive Producer John Siceloff, who said they didn’t know that PBS and CPB were courting him for a new show. They sought to book him as a regular commentator during the 2004 elections.
The e-mails led the IG to conclude that Tomlinson violated the CPB Board’s ethical code by becoming directly involved in program decisions. By suggesting that the show include expensive field reports comparable to those on Moyers’ show, Tomlinson bore some responsibility for the $4.1 million price tag attached to the first 35 episodes of Journal Editorial Report, the IG said.
The Journal described the IG’s report as a politically motivated spin-job that hit its editors with “slimier bits of innuendo” about its production costs.
The newspaper editorialists argued that Tomlinson had done nothing inappropriate and they took Mitchell to task for not alerting them if he had done wrong. Besides, they said, Tomlinson’s efforts did not prove fearsomely potent.
“As an organization, the PBS system resembles late Ching Dynasty China: The Emperor at headquarters may give an order, but the warlords who program individual stations might or might not follow it,” the editors wrote.
In an interview, Executive Producer Paul Friedman disputed the notion that Tomlinson dictated format decisions for Journal Editorial Report.
“The only instruction we had from CPB and PBS was that it be like Now and include studio discussion and pieces produced in the field,” Friedman said. He objected to the cost of taped pieces but was overruled by PBS and CPB program executives, he said.
“More than anything else, the revelations in the e-mails … clarify the intent and actions of the former chairman of the CPB,” PBS said in a statement. “For [Tomlinson] to have been the agent of such pressure is, at its simplest, inappropriate.”
PBS declined requests for interviews with its program executives about decisions involving Journal Editorial Report.
When the Journal’s roundtable debuted on PBS in September 2004, stations carrying it could extend to three hours the public affairs series welcoming the weekend—way too much, in the judgment of many station programmers.
Three months earlier, PBS, with partial CPB funding, had already added the half-hour Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered to its Friday-night block. PBS described it and the Journal program as parts of an initiative to bring “diverse voices” to its schedule. Carlson’s studio-based weekly series, which ended this spring, gave the former Crossfire right-winger a chance to hold court with guests of various political stripes in lively, civil and humor-laced exchanges.
By the time Unfiltered debuted, the CPB Board’s push for rightward programs had captured the attention of media critic Ken Auletta, who chronicled public TV’s infighting over political balance in the New Yorker.
Meanwhile, pubTV station programmers had become increasingly restive over Mitchell’s efforts to start new public affairs shows—a genre least likely to stop erosion of the primetime audience. Station execs balked at a proposal to raise PBS program dues until the network agreed to set ratings criteria for primetime programs.
Against this backdrop, Journal Editorial Report landed in the Friday night feed with full funding from CPB but without the desired common carriage designation that PBS gives to its highest-profile shows.
Programmers’ rejections of the show had nothing to do with ideology but “everything to do” with a PBS schedule “that was packed with news and public affairs shows that were already tackling the issues covered on Journal Editorial Report,” said Garry Denny, p.d. of Wisconsin Public Television.
“I live in a conservative market that is overwhelmingly Republican, and I gave that program a slot with other public affairs shows,” said Ron Pisaneschi, broadcast director of Idaho Public Television and president of Public Television Programmers Association. “Even with the Wall Street Journal doing ads week after week, I still didn’t have any decent audience numbers for it,” he said.
“The process by which it came to be was not the process that I would like to see any program come to the schedule,” Pisaneschi said.
Friedman, a former executive producer of World News Tonight, agreed. “This whole thing was handled badly and certain programmers and managers behaved badly,” he said. He declined to name names.
Four pubTV insiders who would have been clued into a campaign to “blackball” the show — as the Journal article alleged last week — said they’d heard of no such effort.
Friedman believes station programmers in some major markets refused to broadcast Journal Editorial Report to keep conservative views off the air, and he told them so in October, during a meeting at presenting station WNET in New York.
Rejections by programmers in eight of the top 30 Nielsen TV markets, combined with late-night timeslots on four major market stations, made it difficult for Journal Editorial Report to establish an audience, Friedman said.
Some, if not all, of the stations rejected the program because of objections to its politics, Friedman said. Programmers who wanted producers to book guests to articulate a broader range of political opinions misunderstood what Friedman and his colleagues sought to bring to PBS.
“What distinguished the Journal Editorial Report, like it or not, was consistent, coherent, conservative opinion,” Friedman said. “It wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t radical or outside of political norms.”
“I wish PBS had not felt as they did that they were forced into this and had expressed a desire for it to succeed.”
Copyright 2005 American University