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Carlson, Medved, Gigot publicity stills
Carlson, Medved, Gigot: headliners of three new PBS
series backed or under consideration by CPB.

Talk hosts entering
from the right

CPB sees inclusiveness, others cry interference

Originally published in Current, June 7, 2004
By Steve Behrens and Karen Everhart

Fired up by a New Yorker magazine article about CPB and political ideology, media reform advocates are criticizing the organization for backing new public TV programs headlined by conservatives.

Instead of serving as a heat shield for pubcasting, “CPB now is the agent of ideological interference,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree in a statement June 1, pointing to media writer Ken Auletta’s New Yorker article, “Big Bird Flies Right,” which hit newsstands that day.

Just as Bill Moyers prepares to retire from PBS’s Now, CPB is backing Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered, which joins the PBS schedule June 18, and fostering talks about a public affairs show headed by Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Auletta mentions a third series under CPB consideration, featuring conservative film critic Michael Medved, but producers in charge of the project told Current they’re reshaping the proposal as a cultural talk show for weekend broadcast and adding a co-host with contrasting political views.

Bringing several conservative hosts to PBS looks very different from inside CPB than it does from inside Common Cause.

CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson, a retired journalist and Republican appointee, says he wants to make public TV more inclusive. “It is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in public television as people on the left have,” he told the New Yorker writer.

Auletta summarized: “The American right has stopped trying to get rid of PBS . . . . Now it wants a larger voice in shaping the institution.”

Tomlinson and CPB spokeswoman Jeannie Bunton did not return Current’s calls seeking elaboration.

From the viewpoint of Common Cause, however, “public broadcasting has been subject to intense ideological pressure,” Pingree said.

It was Common Cause’s second major statement in recent months criticizing CPB. In December, Pingree questioned statements and actions of big G.O.P. donors on the CPB Board [Jan. 19 article]. In the past two months, the advocacy group has prompted more than 100,000 e-mails and faxes to CPB and Congress urging them to protect pubcasting’s editorial independence, says spokeswoman Mary Boyle. It has collected more than 50,000 signatures to be presented to the Senate Commerce Committee, which may hold a CPB reauthorization hearing in July. And its local activists have held a dozen meetings with members of Congress in their districts.

The 250,000-member advocacy group may stay on the case. Boyle says the campaign is attracting one of its largest grassroots turnouts. Media reform will be a major issue for the group, Pingree said in a Washington Post interview last week. Earlier this spring Common Cause took commercial broadcasters to task for failing to meet their public-interest obligations and it advocated an FCC rule requiring stations to air three hours of civic or election-related programming a week.

Seeking co-host for Medved

Producers made a pilot of the Medved program and hope to launch the series in spring 2005, but the proposed Gigot program doesn’t have CPB’s funding approval so far.
Gigot, formerly paired with Mark Shields in a right-left duo on the NewsHour, would appear in the program presented by WNET in New York.

WNET and PBS “have been instrumental in bringing the proposal this far,” said Bunton, but a CPB contract to fund the proposed Gigot series has yet to be signed. Sources at WNET and Dow Jones Television declined to comment.

Medved, like Gigot, is a familiar face on public TV. For 12 years, until 1996, he co-hosted Sneak Previews, a film review series produced by Chicago’s WTTW.

The new show featuring Medved had been a contender for the Friday night slot taken by Carlson’s show. PBS and CPB funded both pilots last year as they sought right-leaning programs to balance Now with Bill Moyers. Although Medved’s show didn’t win the Friday primetime slot, CPB later offered partial funding for 13 episodes, according to John Davies, executive producer of the series with documentary filmmaker Mark Mori.

The pilot, Culture Clash, offered a raucous debate between Medved and a leftie guest, actress and liberal radio talk host Janeane Garofalo. But the producers now endorse a strategy by Washington’s WETA, the presenting station, to nix the combative title and create a more companionable series to fit with weekend fare. On the advice of WETA program chief Dalton Delan, Davies and Mori postponed the launch to give them time to raise more money and overhaul the show’s format.

The series will be conversational, “not an argument or yelling match,” says Mori, and will examine cultural ramifications of issues in the media, such as publication of photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners.

Rather than booking different guests to spar with Medved each week, Davies says, the producers will hire a co-host “with equal brain wattage who comes at these topics from a different place.” Garofalo held her own in a debate with Medved in the pilot, Davies adds, and is high on his list of candidates. But Garofalo’s contract with the upstart Air America radio net bars her from regular TV gigs.

Guests from the realms of entertainment, politics and pop culture will also appear on the show to “triangulate and energize a deep and compelling conversation about all sorts of modern media,” says Delan.

Delan anticipates that the kinder, gentler version of Culture Clash will be “very appropriate as a lead-in or lead-out of stations’ Saturday Britcom blocks.” WETA will very likely present the series under a new title through American Public Television.

Davies, Medved and Mori have distinctly different histories with public TV. Now a Los Angeles-based entertainment producer, Davies co-created the influential WTTW series Wild Chicago in the 1980s. He met Medved when the film critic auditioned to replace Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the original hosts of Sneak Previews. Davies liked Medved’s “arch-sarcastic approach to bad movies,” he recalls. “He also had an interesting critical mind about films that weren’t dogs.”

Medved moved into a Sneak Previews critic’s chair and, with publication of 1992 book Hollywood vs. America, became a prominent critic of the entertainment industry for promoting violence, sexuality and vulgarity. After guest-hosting for Rush Limbaugh, he launched his own radio show in 1996. It is now nationally syndicated.

Mori produced a 1990 documentary about nuclear pollution, Building Bombs, and organized a coalition of prominent Hollywood talents in 1993 that criticized PBS’s rejection of his film and an anti-nuclear documentary. Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone were among the top directors who lent their names to the cause. P.O.V. later presented an updated version of Building Bombs. Mori continues to produce social documentaries and series for television.

Web page posted June 14, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

EARLIER ARTICLES

"Balance and objectivity" amendment to CPB's congressional charter, 1992.

Moyers becomes a sore point for CPB leaders.

Public TV hires Carlson to balance Moyers.

Common Cause questions partisan Bush appointments to CPB Board, December 2003.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Auletta talks with Brooke Gladstone of public radio's On the Media.

Auletta's New Yorker article, "Big Bird Flies Right."

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