Coalition Protests CPB Plan

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a last-ditch effort to derail the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s plan to name a new president June 20, the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy launched a letter-writing campaign late last week urging CPB to put the decision on hold to give the public and members of Congress an opportunity to comment.

Representatives of the group said they are concerned because they believe the official search for the new executive has been a “smokescreen” and that CPB’s Republican-controlled board is planning to use the occasion to “anoint” Patricia de Stacy Harrison, a State Department official and a GOP fund-raiser, for the post.

In a statement, the CDD alleged that Ms. Harrison is the personal favorite of CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson. Mr. Tomlinson’s recent initiatives to ensure that public broadcast programming is objective and balanced have been attacked by critics as thinly veiled efforts to force public stations to be more sensitive to Republican concerns.

Mr. Tomlinson also is chairman of the Bush administration’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the federal government’s broadcasting operations, including the Voice of America.

“Ms. Harrison’s major qualification is that she is a crony of Mr. Tomlinson,” the CDD said. “Both are high-ranking Bush administration officials working to promote the political goals of the U.S. abroad.”

The center also was critical of the only other known candidate for the slot-Ken Ferree, CPB’s acting president-who, like Ms. Harrison, according the group, lacks public broadcasting expertise.

“At a time when the issue of ‘objectivity and balance’ has been bandied about in connection with the support and governance of public broadcasting, the irony of limiting the CPB presidential search to two Washington ‘insiders will be lost on no one,” the center said in a June 14 letter to Mr. Tomlinson that was also signed by a coalition of groups including Common Cause, the Center for Creative Voices in the Media and the Consumer Federation of America.

“A clearly partisan appointment of the kind now contemplated by the CPB board will serve only to undermine public confidence in public broadcasting,” the letter continued.

CPB spokesman Eben Peck responded, “We are involved in an active search for a new CPB president, using the search firm Spencer Stuart. We are in the process of examining a number of serious candidates for this position.”

Several of the groups are also holding a press conference at CPB headquarters today to deliver 150,000 signed petitions, which according to a written statment, call for Mr. Tomlinson to “stop partisan meddling at the corporation and respect public broadcasting’s mission in a democracy.”

Also last week, the Public Broadcasting Service announced it is creating an ombudsman position, giving the public another venue for beefs about programming on public television.

At the same time, PBS announced the publication of a new set of detailed editorial standards and policies that are intended to educate the public on how PBS programming decisions are made.

CPB, which funnels federal funds to public broadcasting stations, recently announced it has hired ombudsmen of its own.

In an interview, Jacoba Atlas, PBS senior VP of programming, said the upgrades of PBS’s standards, which have been in place since 1987, and the plan to hire an ombudsman were in the works long before the current controversy with CPB.

“PBS has been contemplating adding an ombudsman to the PBS staff for quite some time,” Pat Mitchell, PBS president and CEO, said in a statement.

But Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy, said PBS is clearly trying to erect a “heat shield” from political pressure.

“This is designed to resist the direct editorial control over programming that CPB is seeking,” Mr. Chester said.

The PBS ombudsman, who has yet to be hired, will report to Ms. Mitchell, the PBS statement said. Among other things, the new editorial principles call for statements of opinion, points of view and commentary to be “appropriately identified” and for the identification of all sources of program funding.

“PBS may reject a program or other content if PBS believes that it contains any unfair or misleading presentation of facts, including inaccurate statements of material fact, undocumented statements of fact that appear questionable on their face, misleading juxtapositions, misrepresentations or distortions,” say the new PBS guidelines, which have been published in full on the PBS Web site at pbs.org/aboutpbs/


Despite PBS’s action, the House Appropriations Committee late Thursday approved a subcommittee decision slashing federal funding for public broadcasting from $400 million to $300 million next year and eliminating a $23 million program that provides funding for children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards From Buster.”