Moves at CPB Stir Concerns

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Watchdog group representatives expressed concern last week that a surprise shake-up in leadership at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other recent developments at the organization are putting a chill on noncommercial radio and TV.

“The Republicans are trying to take over public broadcasting,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Added Celia Wexler, VP for advocacy at Common Cause, “What’s happening at CPB is having an impact on programming decisions.”

The change in leadership was noted in an April 8 press release announcing that Kathleen Cox, a mild-mannered former intellectual property attorney, had resigned as the corporation’s president and CEO.

In the statement, the CPB said Ken Ferree, the hard-charging former chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Media Bureau, would serve as CPB’s acting president while the organization’s board searches for a permanent successor-and Mr. Ferree quickly made clear he wants the job. Mr. Ferree was brought on board March 29 to serve as CPB’s executive VP and chief operating officer.

The other development on the watchdog radar screen was the recent announcement that CPB had hired two ombudsmen to monitor complaints about public broadcasting programming.

In a joint press release noting the changing of the CPB guard, Ms. Cox, who was not available for interviews last week, and Kenneth Tomlinson, CPB board chairman, said Ms. Cox and the board believe the time was right for new leadership.

“We share a mutual satisfaction in our accomplishments on behalf of public broadcasting in recent years as well as a belief in the importance of public broadcasting that meets the expectations of the American people,” Ms. Cox and Mr. Tomlinson were quoted as saying in the statement.

Ms. Cox’s resignation came on the heels of the April 5 announcement that Ken Bode, a former NBC newsman, and William Schulz, formerly executive editor of Reader’s Digest, had been assigned to the newly created posts of CPB programming ombudsmen.

The ombudsmen “will help ensure the goal of balance and accuracy in public broadcasting,” said the CPB’s Mr. Tomlinson, a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest who served as director of the Voice of America during the Reagan administration.

Common Cause’s Ms. Wexler said the chief concern of her group is that the CPB changes-signaling that the GOP-dominated CPB board is planning to take a more activist role in public broadcasting-could discourage NPR and PBS, which receive their federal funding through CPB, from doing hard-hitting investigative reporting.

“We want independence here,” Ms. Wexler said. “Public broadcasting has to be independent.”

For Mr. Chester, the CPB moves are the latest confirmation that Republicans have realized that public broadcasting is too popular with the public to zero out by slashing federal funding.

“So instead of trying to kill it, they’re co-opting it, and Ferree is their Manchurian candidate,” Mr. Chester said.

In response, Mr. Ferree issued the following statement: “I believe in the future of free media; I respect the important mission of public broadcasting, and I am committed to making CPB stronger and better able to meet the needs of the system.”

A primary role for the CPB, which is headed by a board of presidential political appointees, has been to serve as insulation between public broadcasters and the federal government, distributing some federal funds directly to radio and TV stations and earmarking other money for programming grants. CPB’s federal budget for fiscal 2005 is

$387 million.

The hiring of the ombudsmen carves out a new role for CPB in overseeing programming that actually appears on the air. But that’s a role that supporters of the initiative was suggested by a provision in the law charging CPB with ensuring that that public broadcast programming is objective and balanced.

Before signing on with CPB, Mr. Ferree, a burly former college football player and lawyer who rides a motorcycle to work and identifies himself as a Republican, served as a top aide to former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican.

At the FCC, Mr. Ferree was one of the chief architects of the agency’s controversial media ownership deregulation effort, which has been blocked by the courts and Congress.