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Slow to rally, station execs decry melting of heat shield

Originally published in Current, May 31, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

A few weeks ago, Bill Reed was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Outraged by press reports outlining CPB efforts to investigate and “balance” pubTV programming, the president of Kansas City PTV, who will retire June 30, circulated the missive he sent to CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson that derided the chairman’s “sad witch hunt” and called for the “sacking” of all board members who supported it.

“I’ve been waiting for someone to respond to this situation,” an exasperated Reed told Current at the time. “If we don’t call these people out when they pull this stuff, it will continue to happen.”

Now, nearly two months after CPB first hit the nation’s front pages with its early April hiring of duo-ombudsmen and sudden dismissal of President Kathleen Cox — and several weeks after a May 2 New York Times story provoked public indignation — station leaders are speaking up publicly.

Iowa Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio Association and other boards and affinity groups have expressed concern about CPB’s plans and actions via letters to the CPB Board. The Iowa letter especially gained traction in the system and was endorsed by the Association of Public Television Stations.

“We are concerned that the historical and critically important role of CPB as a shield between programming and a political process that seeks to influence it is being compromised,” the Iowa board wrote (full text in PDF).

In a May 20 story on Morning Edition, NPR President Kevin Klose defended his network’s coverage of the Middle East against comments from Tomlinson and criticized the chairman’s appointing of ombuds. And while PBS President Pat Mitchell in a National Press Club speech last week declined to comment on the chairman’s motivations, she did reaffirm that PBS belongs to “no agenda of any kind. Our editorial standards ensure this, and public opinion polls verify it.”

Meanwhile, spurred on by Bill Moyers’ Tomlinson-taunting speech at the National Media Reform Conference May 15 (text), media activists continue to call for pubcasting policy changes.

Moyers-style fire and brimstone isn’t appealing for station leaders loath to fuel press coverage of the controversy. But the wait-and-see attitude that has reigned since early April is giving way to a more active approach as the CPB Board’s June 20-21 meeting nears.

Tomlinson predicted earlier this month that the board will choose a new president at that meeting.

CPB couldn’t estimate the volume of station feedback it has received, says spokesman Eben Peck. But CPB Board member Beth Courtney says she’s expecting a greater input from stations in coming weeks.

“I’ve gotten a few letters already, but I’m anticipating many more from a variety of groups,” she says.

The Iowa letter expressed concern that CPB’s “heat shield” against government interference may be melting “in perception by reports of board involvement in program content, or in fact by what we understand is a desire to appoint a partisan political activist to the currently vacant post of CPB president.”

Press reports have identified Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Harrison, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as Tomlinson’s preferred candidate for the traditionally nonpartisan job. Sources said Harrison was offered the job before the board gave the job to Cox in 2004, but Harrison opted to remain at the State Department out of loyalty to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“We believe strongly that such an appointment would be in absolute contradiction to the concept of CPB as buffer,” the Iowa board wrote. “It would call into question the motivations of everything we do, whether funded by CPB or not.”

CPB has also received a pubradio resolution supporting programming independence (excerpt at right from Current, May 16), and letters from the Wisconsin Public Radio Association and the University Licensee Association. The 27 members of the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives are giving copies of the Iowa letter to their local boards with the intention of crafting similar responses to send CPB, says OSBE Co-chair Peter Morrill, g.m. of Idaho PTV. Copies were also distributed at a meeting of the Affinity Group Coalition.

“We’re telling the CPB Board that the stations and associations of public TV are watching,” says APTS Vice Chairman Byron Knight, director of broadcast and media innovations at Wisconsin PTV. “We’re sharing our concerns and we have no idea what’s going to happen on June 21, but the message is, ‘We’re watching.’”

No screams about the sky falling

Why did stations take so long to respond to the controversy?

“This isn’t the first battle of its kind,” says APTS Chairwoman Julie Andersen, executive director of South Dakota Public Broadcasting. “There was maybe an expectation that it would blow over faster than it has.”

In addition, “it was clearly a Washington problem,” says Courtney, who as president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting is the station rep on the CPB Board. “We’re very secure in the fact that our communities know we’re not partisan.” State networks, which are more dependent on political goodwill for funding than other licensees, are especially sensitive to charges of partisanship, Courtney says.

Station execs are also distressed by claims in the media — the Christian Science Monitor, Slate, the Chicago Tribune — and elsewhere that the best way to solve pubcasting’s political problems would be to stop federal appropriations. The Tribune favored federal endowment of a permanent trust fund.

“It’s good for stations to be telling CPB, ‘We’re the only ones on the ground level; we’re the ones who bear the responsibility,” Courtney says. That reality has been lost amid conflict between the national organizations, she says.

Grant Price, an Iowa Public Broadcasting Board member and longtime commercial broadcasting exec, said he was alarmed that Tomlinson would try to bring in a CPB president so visibly affiliated with a political party. “It seems like a real threat to the fundamental premise of ... CPB as a buffer against political intervention.”

Tomlinson has done little to ease anxiety about CPB’s interest in maintaining the heat shield. When pressed for examples of bias on PBS and NPR, he has pointed to complaints from major donors, Congress members and watchdog groups such as Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, while largely disregarding CPB’s own poll results that suggest that audiences are happy with pubcasting’s balance.

For example, after Tomlinson promised May 18 on The Diane Rehm Show that he would provide examples of NPR’s pro-Palestinian coverage bias, CPB instead sent the show and Current a transcript from CPB’s September 2004 public forum in which Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), CAMERA and a disgruntled private citizen criticized NPR’s Middle East coverage (earlier article).

Stations will wait for results from CPB Inspector General’s study before passing judgment on some of the juicier charges that have played out in the press, APTS Chairman Andersen says.

“We’re not screaming that the sky is falling and there’s not any interest in perpetuating the media coverage,” she says. “This is an issue to be fought within our system and fought in an appropriate manner.”

Alas, some may miss the fight as it moves into the summer and fall.

“The one thing that makes me sorry about retiring,” Reed told Current last week, “is that I won’t be able to do anything about this mess after June 30.”

Web page posted June 1, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Bill Reed

EARLIER ARTICLES

Stay tuned for the balance debates: a narrative of recent partisan-balance activities of CPB leaders, May 16, 2005.

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LINKS

Iowa Public Broadcasting Board letter to CPB, May 16, 2005.

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Public radio reps warn CPB

Excerpted from Current, May 16, 2005

In public radio, meanwhile, a resolution presented at NPR’s annual membership meeting May 3 in Washington urged CPB to “do nothing to diminish the firewall” protecting its program independence and to defer to broadcast professionals’ decisions about pubradio priorities.

Presented by Tim Emmons, g.m. of Northern Public Radio in DeKalb, Ill., the resolution [text] directed CPB to stay out of programming decisions and questioned the role of the agency’s new ombudsmen.

"There is a fundamental disconnect between the traditional role of ombudsmen and a funding agency,” Emmons told Current, adding, “The strong implication is that funding priorities can change if [CPB doesn’t] agree with the point of view of the piece of work, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

The week before the membership meeting, NPR staffers asked Emmons to present the resolution. Mike Riksen, v.p. of government relations, provided a draft that asked why CPB needed ombudsmen if the network already employs one. Emmons struck that from the resolution and instead played up potential harm to stations’ independence, which he called his main concern.

Lacking a quorum, Tim Eby, chairman of the NPR Board, held a straw vote on the resolution, which received many “ayes” and no objections. Eby read the resolution again at a meeting of the NPR Board May 6.