Media

Disservice to the Public...Broadcasting System

Claiming a need for 'fresh faces,' the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's new Crossroads initiative funds former CPB and PBS heads.
One of the longest running jokes about PBS goes like this: "If you think the Balkans are bad, imagine if they armed the public television stations!"

For years, the fractious, feudal public broadcast "system" of powerful, quasi-independent stations/fiefdoms has frustrated PBS programmers and producers alike. Programmers at leading stations like WGBH and WNET seem to compete as much as they collaborate, dueling for scarce dollars to fund their productions, while executives in lesser markets loudly exercise their local autonomy, preventing programs from being broadcast at the same time on every station, for example, thus foiling efforts to create a truly national network. Periodically, of course, they alternate taking pot shots at PBS officials by arraying themselves in circles before firing.

Of late, however, the balkanized PBS stations seem armed, dangerous and oddly united. True, it's taken what some termed a "creeping conservative coup" to bring them together -- but then the Bush Administration has elevated sneaky partisan zealotry to a fine political art. Now public television's middle-class Middle Americans are fighting back.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Kenneth Tomlinson has been one flashpoint for the recent unrest. Tomlinson, a former head of Voice of America and retired Reader's Digest editor who is also the Bush-appointed chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe and other government media outlets, has caused what the public telecommunications journal Current termed "dark accusations and suspicions" in public television's usually staid suites. How? By commissioning secret content reviews of programs like NOW with Bill Moyers, recruiting White House staffers to write guidelines for newly installed CPB ombudsmen, pushing for the appointment of a former Republican National Committee co-chair as CPB president, and in general leading a drive for "political balance" on the public television airwaves so controversial that has already poisoned CPB's reputation and threatens to do the same to that of public television itself.

But Tomlinson is not the only problem public television executives currently face at CPB. Two recent multi-million dollar programming initiatives are now being denounced by the board of directors of the Public Television Programmers Association (PTPA) as "a disservice to viewers and stations alike."

The first, entitled "America at a Crossroads," is CPB's largest programming initiative in recent years, undertaken as a direct response to the attacks of 9/11. CPB framed the twenty million dollar effort as a means of producing programming that explores
"...the nature and direction of international terrorism, the war against it, the use of American power against states that harbor or sponsor terrorists, America's image abroad, radical Islamist movements, pre-emptive military action, unilateralism, regime change, conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties, and other still-emerging questions resulting from the 9/11 attacks."
24 program proposals have received research and development funds from the initiative. (Full disclosure: like hundreds of other filmmakers, I submitted proposals that were not selected for funding.) In reading through the descriptions of those CPB did select, the PTPA board was "struck by a profound sense of déjà vu," according to a commentary written on its behalf by board president Garry Denny, associate director of programming at Wisconsin Public Television. "The programs funded to date have themes, topics, and narrative voices that are similar if not completely repetitive" of programming that has already aired on pubic broadcasting. Michael Pack, the conservative documentary film maker who as CPB vice president for television programming is the lead executive for the initiative, says the Crossroads initiative sought to "bring in new voices who will advance and enrich the discussion, not rehash the same old conversation." But Denny and other public television programmers argue that "rehashing may indeed be exactly what we get."

Part of the reason for the rehash may lie in the selection process itself. Although Pack says CPB's Crossroads initiative intended "to bring new voices and energy to public television," the former heads of both PBS and CPB mysteriously managed to qualify.

One time PBS honcho Jennifer Lawson (who once infamously pronounced human rights to be "an insufficient organizing principle for a television series") is teaming up with ABC News Productions (another "new" voice?) on a project called Security Versus Liberty: The Other War, which "will examine the tensions and trade-offs between security and liberty in the post-9/11 world by following several characters enmeshed in the controversy." And ex-CPB chief Richard Carlson and his Foundation For the Defense of Democracies are paired with Barbara Newman and Tulip Hill Productions on Danger Zone, a two-part program that will "explore intelligence and special operations efforts to fight terrorism in the United States and worldwide." Part one will offer an in-depth look at British intelligence agency MI5 and how it works with US Intelligence and Special Forces, including covert private contractors. Part two will investigate Hezbollah's activities in about a dozen American cities.

If you find it noteworthy that the former head of CPB was chosen to receive research and development funds from CPB -- a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress to develop educational public radio, television and online services for the American people -- join the club! CPB is the largest single source of funds for national public television and radio program development and production. It also provided backing recently for two clearly unbalanced programs meant to 'balance' the presence of Bill Moyers on PBS. One featured the hard-right editorial board of the Wall Street Journal; the other starred the bow tied conservative Tucker Carlson, son of -- you guessed it -- Richard Carlson.

Last August, after writing about young Carlson's selection as host of a PBS public affairs program, I received an anonymous tip from a reader. "I guess Tucker is so far out of the loop about how things work that he doesn't even know that CPB/PBS is going to fund a series on terrorism through a front group working for his daddy, Richard Carlson. The group is organized through Carlson Senior's Washington, D.C. foundation, and includes ex-CIA and FBI people," my tipster noted. "This little sugar cookie was originally to have been announced in July, but some of Dick's angels (Kenneth Tomlinson owes Dick big time) thought that it was dangerous to have an announcement so close to little Tucker's lollipop being handed out."

On March 10, 2005, CPB announced that Richard Carlson's proposed two-part series on terrorism had been selected to receive an R&D grant. "Dark accusations and suspicions" aside, am I alone in surmising that this outstanding example of "Pack" journalism is yet another political "balancing" act? Or is the Crossroads grant to Richard Carlson instead mere political payback by Ken Tomlinson -- a man who, as my tipster aptly noted, "owes Dick big time?"

Meanwhile, the association of public television programmers is busy denouncing not only Carlson's grant, but also the entire Crossroads initiative itself on the basis that none of it fills any unmet needs or is worth the investment. And unlike Tomlinson's, their hearts are pure. "We want to be crystal clear that our assessment...is not based on an ideological view," PTPA board chair Garry Denny says. "This is not about politics. This is about serving the public with accessible, enlightening, informative programming and ensuring that every available dollar in the public television system be put to the most productive use possible.

"The twenty million dollars earmarked to fund America at a Crossroads is going through the wrong funnel," the PTPA board concluded. Instead, the programmers believe that the Crossroads grants -- and another new twenty million dollar history programming initiative -- duplicate existing programs and are "a disservice to viewers and stations alike." They suggest that both initiatives be "thoroughly re-evaluated" before further funding is committed. "Think what $40 million could do," the PTPA board concluded.

A third round of Crossroads grants will be announced as early as next week, close on the heels of the unveiling of new PBS editorial standards intended to ensure balance and fairness, the hiring of yet another ombudsman ro review controversial programs after they air, and of course Congressional consideration of public broadcasting's federal funding for next year.

As they say -- stay tuned!
This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.
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