Their fires stoked by a speech by former Now host Bill Moyers, media-reform activists are ratcheting up campaigns to protect public broadcasting from partisan influence of the Republican-dominated CPB Board.
"I should put my detractors on notice,” Moyers said May 15 at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis. "They might compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.”
Both Free Press, the two-year-old nonprofit that organized the conference, and Common Cause, which has been questioning CPB Board appointments since late 2003, have posted online petitions casting CPB Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson as chief antagonist in their campaigns to “return public broadcasting to the people,” as Free Press puts it.
“We expect the CPB and its chairman to defend critical, fact-based reporting and respect the editorial independence of public broadcasting,” Common Cause asserts in its petition.
The two groups, which forged a coalition with consumer advocates to propose a series of town hall meetings on public broadcasting, want to remove partisanship from public broadcasting’s governance and editorial decision-making. Though many of the groups’ media-reform issues would interest conservatives as well as liberals, their agenda features reforms long advocated by the political left, such as reduced commercialism, broader representation for minority and independent voices, and improved local service.
“Our overall goal is to build a strong noncommercial media sector in the United States and recapture the original mission of public broadcasting,” said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, which was founded in 2002 by media historian Robert McChesney. “To us, it’s a local mission. Public broadcasting is all about serving the local community.”
“This is an incredible opportunity for us,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, during a May 14 panel discussion of public broadcasting at the media reform conference. Since media reform issues seldom attract high-profile coverage by the mainstream press, the attention spawned by press accounts of CPB’s efforts to rebalance PBS gives activists a big opening to present their reform agendas in terms that the public understands, she said.
If Tomlinson wears a black hat in the eyes of these activists, the white hat belongs to Moyers, who not only was Tomlinson’s target as host of Now until his retirement in December but who also is a funder of the media-reform movement as president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, formerly the Schumann Foundation.
In his closing address at the media conference, Moyers painted Tomlinson and his CPB Board allies as “people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy. ... A free press is one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.”
“I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House,” Moyers said.
Video and audio streams and a transcript of the speech were posted on Free Press’s conference website (freepress.net/conference), and cable access channels and satellite broadcasters telecast coverage recorded by Chicago Media Access Network Television.
Public broadcasting is only one element on the media-reform agendas of Free Press and Common Cause. The digital transition is a “big, big issue” for Common Cause, along with reauthorization of the Telecom Act of 1996 and FCC reconsideration of media ownership rules, said Celia Wexler, v.p. for advocacy.
The two groups, accustomed to working with allied nonprofits, laid out a critique of public television April 28, supporting pubcasting generally but citing politicization at CPB and public dissatisfaction with PBS’s commercial underwriting and partnerships as trends that warrant a broader discussion about public TV. Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America joined in that report. The report didn’t mention NPR or public radio.
The groups recommended that public broadcasters and public-interest groups conduct a series of local town hall meetings. Suspicious of the forthcoming report of PBS’s Digital Future Initiative panel, which they expect to focus on apolitical education projects, they are not willing to let DFI or conservatives set the agenda for public discussion. “We want to ask the people what they want to see public broadcasting become over the next 10 years,” said Scott. More specific proposals for public broadcasting reforms will come out of the meetings, he said.
“This is a decision the public ought to be making, especially with increasing changes now before the system,” Scott said. “Without public commitment to a vision for PBS, the political difficulties will continue to mount.” Free Press is working to recruit more coalition members before organizing the meetings, he said.
The meetings will help demonstrate public support for improvements to public broadcasting, but the coalition doesn’t intend them to be lovefests for PBS, says Wexler. “We want these to be constructive conversations that don’t mince words.”
Ernest Wilson, a Democrat on the CPB Board who attended the media reform conference as a panelist and speaker, endorsed the advocacy coalition’s call for town hall meetings.
“We need a new American conversation about the contribution that public broadcasting can make to American citizenship and education and quality of American life,” Wilson said May 14 during the session devoted to pubcasting. “I agree that this cannot be done inside the Beltway. It’s going to be done by you, and if you don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.”
“White hot” as an issue
On its separate agenda for pubcasting advocacy, Common Cause continues to press for reform of the CPB Board nomination process. Its online petition, posted on the Web May 18, asks policymakers to reassert CPB’s role as a heat shield protecting public broadcasters by, among other things, eliminating the ombudsman office recently established at CPB.
Common Cause aims to collect 100,000 petition signatures before the CPB Board’s June 20-21 meeting, but the flood of early online responses crashed Common Cause’s computer system, Wexler said. “There were probably thousands who couldn’t sign,” Wexler said. “People are very responsive to this because public TV means a lot.”
During last year’s Senate hearings on reauthorizing CPB, Common Cause lobbied for reforms to the board nomination process that mirror recommendations outlined by the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting in 1978. The commission proposed to end political appointments to the board by enlisting the Librarian of Congress to prepare a slate of candidates from which the president chooses CPB Board nominees.
“We would really like to see a board that reflects the very best minds and talents that make sense and apply in public broadcasting,” Wexler said. “You want people who are all about the product and not about partisanship, and that’s been a problem with the CPB board regardless of what party is in power,” she said.
Free Press’s petition asks policy makers to oust Tomlinson, who “is using his position to pursue a partisan agenda,” it says. Free Press also requests support for the town hall meetings. As of late last week, it had garnered 81,045 signatures.
“This is the strongest response we’ve gotten on any petition we’ve ever done,” Scott said. “This is an issue that’s white hot. I’ve not seen anything like it in the two years I’ve been here.”
Moyers’ speech was a high point of the St. Louis conference and the session on public broadcasting drew a near-capacity crowd, according to several participants. Panelist Karen Bond, an activist with Chicago Media Action, led the room in a chant for pubcasting, exclaiming as she left the podium, “Give me some fists!”
Jerold Starr, director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and also a panelist, said interest in pubcasting reform issues was exceptional compared to past media reform conferences, where public TV and radio weren’t even on the agenda. Starr’s CIPB literature was snapped up by conference participants, including FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.
“There’s definitely a lot of interest and energy there,” Starr said. “I can’t recall when the major media have been so interested.”
“What was really interesting for me was to get beyond the Beltway and the sort of echo chamber that Washington, D.C., can become,” Wilson said.
Media reformers represent a colorful mix of interests — from cable access and low-power FM advocates to college students, media policy wonks and entertainers. Free Press doesn’t attempt to mobilize them around a single issue but to channel disenchantment with corporate media into a grassroots movement that can challenge media consolidation trends.
“Generally the media reform conference is very good for ginning people up and connecting people,” Wexler said.
“There were a lot of workshops on the state of affairs in telecom that people need to pay attention to and issues at the FCC,” said Barbara Popovic, executive director of Chicago Access Network Television.
Participants come to learn how they can influence media policy so that “there’s space carved out for the public,” she said. “Free Press deserves credit for pulling together a very diverse range of people—from concerned individuals to some people who are dealing with major policy work at the national level.”
Moyers on Capitol Hill
After his speech to media reformers, Moyers spoke about pubcasting and media reform on Capitol Hill May 24. Enthusiastically received by a crowd packing a House banquet room, the speech was the first major event organized by the Future of American Media Caucus, established this year to educate House members about media policy issues. Although the caucus claims bipartisan membership, the audience appeared to be largely if not entirely Democratic. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) chairs the caucus, which goes by the acronym FAM.
Moyers screened clips from Now and docs he made for PBS, presenting them as examples of fact-based journalism that conservative ideologues seek to squelch. Two clips dealt with the erosion of jobs for working class Americans. “You find very few people like that showing up in American media,” he said, after a clip about a working-class couple in Milwaukee struggling to prevent a bank from foreclosing on their house.
Moyers described a twofold crisis in media policy: the close links between media conglomerates and government powerbrokers from whom they seek “subsidies, favors, access,” and attacks on journalistic principles by rising partisan media. “The political right,” he said, “has executed a campaign to discredit the mainstream media.”
Although Moyers didn’t serve congressional aides the same menu of red-meat attacks on the CPB Board that roused media activists in St. Louis, he described the CPB chairman as a player in this broader effort to push ideological values into news. Moyers said he’d never met Tomlinson. “I can only judge him by what he said about my work, which was wrong, unfounded and unseemly,” he said.
Moyers urged lawmakers to “find a way to preserve public-interest journalism” and PBS’s role as an alternative source of information. “This is a winning issue in time, because I believe most Americans want their press to remain free.”
posted with corrections June 1, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee