Source : New Yorker
How Republicans learned to love PBS
A year and a half ago, Pat Mitchell, the president of the Public Broadcasting System, was invited to tea at Vice-President Cheney's house. The federal government is PBS's biggest patron, and Mitchell was happy to accept. There to greet her, on December 11, 2002, was Lynne Cheney, the Vice-President's wife, and Michael Pack, a producer. Cheney has written a number of children's books, and Mitchell especially liked "A Is for Abigail"-Abigail Adams-which was subtitled "An Almanac of Amazing American Women." She knew that Pack, who had made documentaries for PBS, had ties to the Bush Administration; he had recently been nominated by George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.
After some pleasantries, Pack proposed a series of hour-long television programs aimed at middle-school children. Pack later explained, "We brought Pat Mitchell there to see if it was acceptable to have the Vice-President's wife be on a show on public television." Pack said that the plan was to look "for private funding, not government funding," and he didn't know if Mrs. Cheney would be paid; no one asked whether PBS would help fund the series. Mitchell, Pack added, was "enthusiastic about the project and did not feel it was a problem."
A follow-up meeting was subsequently arranged between Pack and PBS's programming co-chief John Wilson, on January 27, 2003, at PBS's offices, in Alexandria, Virginia. "We were trying to be sensitive to the fact that Lynne Cheney was associated with this," Wilson said. Wilson remembers the proposed title as "Lynne Cheney's History Book." Wilson's deputy, Alyce Myatt, who has since left PBS, had a blunter reaction: "I said it was inappropriate for the second-highest-ranking public official to be requesting time on public television." Wilson confirmed this misgiving, adding, "That was one of the questions hanging over the table-the appropriateness of a government official or spouse" appearing on public television.
Mitchell recently told me that she was never enthusiastic about the program. "I was enthusiastic about Mrs. Cheney's books, which I give to children," she said. And in the end, Mitchell said, her staff agreed that "it would be a problem having Mrs. Cheney as host." In any event, just weeks after the meeting with Wilson and Myatt, Pack was appointed senior vice-president for television programming for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which dispenses federal funding to PBS and local stations, and he recused himself from the project. His wife, Gina Pack, who now runs his company, said of the Cheney proposal, "I haven't done too much on it for a while."
In a way, these conversations were in the spirit of American public broadcasting, which was developed in the nineteen-sixties. Part of its mission has been to bring different points of view to television, and there has never been a series hosted by the wife of a Vice-President-or by any senior government official. The project also might have pleased American conservatives, who suspect public broadcasting-PBS and National Public Radio-of having a left-leaning agenda.
This is no trivial concern. Congress contributes some fifteen per cent of the annual budget-two billion dollars-of PBS and its three hundred and forty-nine member stations. In the Bush era, with Republicans in control of Congress, an organization like PBS, which is perceived as liberal, seems particularly vulnerable. In February, Common Cause warned that conservatives in Congress were planning to slash federal funding for public broadcasting. One target was the weekly PBS program "Now with Bill Moyers," which, since its launch, in January, 2002, has aired more than three dozen stories and interviews exploring how conservative policies have endangered the environment.
During the Reagan era, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting came under particular scrutiny. Richard Brookhiser, then a C.P.B. board member and a senior editor at National Review, urged a "content analysis" of PBS programming, in order to study the purported left-wing bias of public television. When Newt Gingrich was designated the Speaker of the House, in 1995, he denounced public broadcasting as "this little sandbox for the rich," while proposing to "zero-out" its federal subsidies. "The only group lobbying" for public broadcasting, Gingrich said, is "a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people so they get to spend the money." Some elected officials talked about selling part of the public broadcasting system to investors; Senator Larry Pressler, of South Dakota, wanted to enact legislation to privatize public broadcasting.
This year, however, the anticipated attack from the right never came. When three public-broadcasting leaders--Pat Mitchell; Kevin Klose, the head of NPR; and Robert Coonrod, the president of the C.P.B.--appeared jointly before a House subcommittee in February, no Republican members mentioned "liberal bias," although Ralph Regula, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee's Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee, did say that he hoped public broadcasting would remember that "McDonald's made a fortune catering to everyone's taste." Afterward, Regula told me that although he doesn't watch much television, "the children's programs are great. My two-year-old grandchild loves Elmo."
This apparent reversal may have been a pragmatic choice for Republicans. After all, Pressler lost his Senate seat in 1996, and so did other Republicans who had tried to make an issue of public broadcasting. "They came out with a frontal attack, and what happened?" Mitchell said. "Many"--she thinks nineteen--"didn't get reelected." Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House Telecommunications subcommittee, said, "The problem is that once the debate on PBS begins, then Big Bird shows up and says, 'Why are you trying to kill me?' "
For all that, the politics of public broadcasting remain contentious and in many ways unresolved. The American right has stopped trying to get rid of PBS (and NPR, whose audience has grown by some sixty per cent in the last five years). Now it wants a larger voice in shaping the institution.
Public television arose from a conviction that commercial television was often, in the words of a Federal Communications Commission chairman, Newton Minow, "a vast wasteland." President Johnson wanted to model American public broadcasting on the system devised for the BBC--independent, yet with continuing government funding. According to Bill Moyers, who was then an aide to the President, Johnson believed that a dedicated tax would erect "a moat" between politicians and public broadcasting; he laid out "the most impassioned case" to Wilbur Mills, who was then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. As Moyers recounts it, Mills listened, and when Johnson had finished he said, "Now, Lyndon, you know--you know, Lyndon!--that if you were still up here you would be on my side. But you know, Lyndon, we're not going to give money to anybody we don't control." Moyers sighed. "We lost the game right there," he said, "because we didn't have the independent fund."
The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act declared that public broadcasting must have "instructional, educational, and cultural purposes" and that it should take "creative risks" and address "the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities." The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established to shield public broadcasting from political pressure. The C.P.B., wholly supported by federal funds, was meant to be a sort of government paymaster for PBS and the local stations.
The system was designed to avoid centralized power; the C.P.B. has no authority to tell PBS, NPR, or the local stations what to do; unlike a traditional network, PBS owns no stations and does not produce programs. The stations produce programs but do not control the PBS schedule. (The stations pay PBS annual dues for services and broadcast rights.) And PBS and the stations collect the bulk of their money from membership drives and on-air pledges (which generate nearly twenty-five per cent of their support) and from corporate underwriters, state and city governments, universities, foundations, and a variety of other sources.
But grants from the C.P.B.--especially those for programming--serve an essential purpose: once PBS or a station has a C.P.B. programming pledge, it can use that commitment to raise additional money from traditional sources. The C.P.B. is run by veterans: Coonrod, the outgoing president, has been with the C.P.B. since 1992 and became its president in 1997; Kathleen A. Cox, who will succeed Coonrod in July, joined the C.P.B. in 1997, after a career as an intellectual-property-rights lawyer. The nine board members, who generally serve six-year terms, are politically appointed--no more than five may be members of the same party--and the choices that the C.P.B. makes behind its theoretically nonpartisan doors are closely watched. The C.P.B. spends sixty-five million dollars on national programming alone. It gives $29.5 million of this to PBS, $9.5 million to the Independent Television Service, $3.2 million to the minority consortia, and exercises flexible control over the rest. Any hint of politics in this distribution makes PBS and its member stations uneasy.
Pat Mitchell, who is sixty-one, became PBS's fifth president in March of 2000, and presides over a staff of nearly five hundred at PBS headquarters. She was the first woman, the first producer, and the first former anchor and talk-show host to lead PBS. At the time of her appointment, she worked for Ted Turner as president of CNN Productions, in Atlanta. She knew little about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or about "the big issues" facing PBS. She did, however, know a lot about Newt Gingrich, who had stepped down as Speaker and left the House in 1999--and had changed his mind about public broadcasting. "You don't have anything to fear from me," Mitchell recalls Gingrich, a fellow-Georgian, telling her. "Nobody is going to take you guys on again." Gingrich told her that he and his colleagues had underestimated the audience, and support, for public broadcasting. "It became clear to me quickly that public broadcasting was at a crossroads," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who received a drama scholarship to attend the University of Georgia, was one of several students who sometimes walked to class with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black female student to cross the color line there. Mitchell married, had a son, divorced, and got her first job in local television in New York, in 1971. From there she went to Boston, Washington, and, in 1979, California, where she became an NBC correspondent. In 1981, she launched her own syndicated talk show, "Woman to Woman," which she later produced as segments on "Today." During the next five years, Mitchell became a familiar face on network television, often filling in for Jane Pauley.
Mitchell, though, was frustrated with the limitations of morning television; she wanted to produce long-form documentaries. She did "Today" pieces from the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and El Salvador. She formed a company and produced documentaries, for the A&E network, ABC, and Lifetime. In 1991, she met with Ted Turner, who was then airing hundreds of hours of documentaries on both the TBS Superstation and CNN. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes--relatively long by Turner standards--and Turner quickly approved her proposal for the documentary "A Century of Women." Soon after, Turner offered her a job supervising documentaries at Turner Broadcasting. She settled in Atlanta, where she met her future husband, and stayed with Turner for the next eight years. When Turner sold his company to Time Warner, in 1996, the documentary unit moved to CNN, where Mitchell oversaw the production of Turner's twenty-four-episode series on the Cold War.
By the time the PBS search committee approached her, Mitchell was ready to move on; she'd seen documentaries and cable news reporting being replaced by celebrity profiles and cheap studio talk, and felt discouraged by Time Warner's preoccupation with profit margins and better ratings. She saw Turner moving away from daily involvement. Always the diplomat, she said, "I'm not critical of my colleagues. I'm critical of the pressure they live under. I started in television when news divisions were not expected to make lots of money."
PBS has its own financial pressures, but it also has unique strengths. In a recent Roper poll, fifty per cent of American adults ranked public television first among institutions they trusted "a great deal." (Congress ranked last, with ten per cent; the commercial broadcast networks won approval from seventeen per cent.) The largest block of PBS's programming for the past season consisted of eight hundred and one hours of children's programming (thirty-eight per cent); the next largest was public affairs and news coverage (twenty-five per cent). Cultural programming was estimated at six per cent and drama at four per cent. PBS programs are watched each week by an average of eighty-seven million viewers--a small audience by the standards of broadcast television but more than twice that of such basic-cable networks as Discovery and A&E.
Independent producers say that PBS is one of the few places that welcome serious documentaries. Ken Burns, who spends several years on each of the documentaries that he has produced for PBS--he's made twenty or so, including "The Civil War," the most-watched documentary ever to appear on PBS--says that unlike many of his peers, who sometimes cede control to their financial backers, "I can sit here and tell you with the most satisfying professional delight that if you don't like any of my films it's all my fault." For Burns and for such producers as Helen Whitney or David Fanning, of "Frontline," PBS is an indispensable outlet. "If we don't do Rwanda," Fanning said, "no one else will."
During the last decade, Ken Burns alone has produced fifty-five hours of programming. The stations pay PBS annual dues to air the Burns documentaries and such programs as WGBH-Boston's "Frontline," WNET-New York's "Great Performances," and KCET-Los Angeles's Latino drama "American Family." But such programming does not contribute greatly to public television's financial health; critics frequently argue that PBS and the stations ought to profit more from the income and merchandise generated by programs like "Sesame Street."
PBS has lots of other intelligent programming, including "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and Charlie Rose's interview show. It's unlikely that any organization but public broadcasting would undertake such costly, money-losing ventures as "Great Performances," which costs WNET about a million dollars per hour, according to the station's president, William Baker. But PBS panel shows like "Wall Street Week with Fortune" can be tedious, and its public-affairs programming is sometimes maddeningly polite. Apart from children's shows, PBS's weekly schedule is too often made up of offerings like "Antiques Roadshow," "Suze Orman," films one could find on Turner Classic Movies, and concert tapes--Peter, Paul and Mary or Yanni or Michael Feinstein--that can often be found elsewhere. Two long-running programs--"Masterpiece Theatre" and "Scientific American Frontiers"--may be cancelled in the future, for lack of funds, and viewers in great numbers turn to much maligned commercial television for such first-rate news programs as "60 Minutes" and "Nightline"; to HBO for entertainment of high quality, such as "The Sopranos"; and to the cable channels Trio, Discovery, Bravo, and BBC America for the sort of programming that once belonged only to PBS.
"I've never had a White House meeting on the subject of public broadcasting," Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the C.P.B., told me. (Tomlinson, who was appointed by President Clinton on the recommendation of Republican leaders, has ties to the Bush White House.) Lately, however, the C.P.B. has asserted itself more than it has in years.
The C.P.B.'s television-programming grants are supervised by Michael Pack, who attended the meeting with Pat Mitchell and Lynne Cheney. When Pack was a producer, his company, Manifold Productions, made a number of PBS documentaries--among them "God and the Inner City" and "Inside the Republican Revolution: The First Hundred Days"--that were applauded by conservatives. Pack praises "Frontline" and Bill Moyers and Jim Lehrer, but he also told me that his colleagues at PBS and the stations had become too "obsessed with ratings" and that they had "narrowed their voices too much" and needed to include more views, particularly from the right, to "raise the level of discussion." In that way, Pack sees himself as a reformer.
Mitchell has been skillfully solicitous of the Republicans. In February, 2003, she invited Newt Gingrich to give the keynote address to a gathering of public-television station managers in Washington. He told them that he listens to NPR while driving to work in the morning, and said that in an age of "big media" and more channel choices there was an opportunity for public broadcasting to strengthen its community ties. "If you took the three dumbest things done on commercial television last week, you would have an automatic pretty good argument for why we should have some alternative," he said. He got a standing ovation.
There were people in that room to whom he was the devil incarnate," Mitchell said. "After he spoke . . . for the next several months no one was quoted more by our general managers than Newt Gingrich."
Gingrich had told Mitchell that she did not have enough conservative voices on PBS. This was the prevailing view in Washington, Mitchell believed, and she proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS town-hall program; in particular, she wanted to fill an hour on Friday nights, before the start of "Charlie Rose," at eleven. After several discussions with Gingrich, she telephoned Roger Ailes, the C.E.O. of Fox News, with which Gingrich has a contract as a commentator, and asked to borrow Gingrich on Friday nights. Ailes, as Mitchell recalled it, said, "Are you out of your mind?"
Gingrich acknowledged the discussions with Mitchell. "Pat is making a more serious effort to reach out," he said, In February, 2003, after Pack was appointed to his post at the C.P.B., Mitchell had weekly conference calls between her program staff and his. Together, they worked on fourteen proposals for the Friday-night slot, turning four of these into pilots, including one from WETA-Washington to produce a magazine show hosted by Tucker Carlson, the conservative co-host of CNN's "Crossfire." Pack said that he pushed for Carlson and for a program anchored by Paul Gigot, the editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Carlson's program will begin in June, and Gigot's is expected to debut this fall.
Despite such collaboration, the schism between PBS and the C.P.B. remains. Tomlinson and Mitchell are both Southerners and former journalists, and they both worry about the ill effects of media consolidation--and there the apparent similarities end. Mitchell is an active environmentalist and a close friend of Jane Fonda, Ted Turner's ex-wife; Tomlinson, a former editor of Reader's Digest, is a Republican and a friend of Bush's political adviser Karl Rove. When he was asked to assess the job that Mitchell is doing, Tomlinson said, "I really haven't interacted that much with Pat Mitchell."
The stated mission of public broadcasting, Tomlinson said, is "We serve the underserved." Tomlinson defined his audience this way: "Frankly, when I think 'public affairs' in this era, although I think the 'NewsHour' is still unique, it is no longer unique in news and current-affairs programming, because cable has brought just a political richness, for political junkies, at least--everything from Chris Matthews to Brit Hume." He added, "You need people to feel they are getting something on public television they don't get anywhere else. It is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in public television as people on the left have." Then he cited C-span as a model. "In many ways, C-span is fulfilling the original intent of the founders of public broadcasting," he said. "I want a neutral host."
Even though consumers had more channel choices than ever, he said, public television could do what commercial television didn't do-produce programs devoted to music and children's education, and programs that "preserve cultural heritages." But he believed that local public affairs constituted the real gap that public broadcasting needed to fill. "Localism, in fact, may be the fight of public broadcasting," he said. It may be a lengthy struggle; only sixteen stations air their own nightly public-affairs programs.
If one person reflects the tension between PBS and the C.P.B., it is Bill Moyers, who has produced programming for PBS since the nineteen-seventies--from "Bill Moyers' Journal" to "Now." Moyers is also a source of public contention. Three days after Republicans swept both houses of Congress in the 2002 midterm elections, Moyers, in a commentary at the end of his program, warned that conservatives will "force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives," will use taxes to "transfer wealth from working people to the rich," and will allow corporations to "eviscerate the environment." Critics like Tomlinson said that Moyers shouldn't be offering commentaries; defenders like Jerold Starr, of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, said that Moyers was providing the "forum for debate and controversy" that was part of public broadcasting's mission.
During the Senate Commerce Committee's November, 2003, confirmation hearings for Cheryl Halpern, a major Republican fund-raiser and a former member of Voice of America's parent body, to become a board member of the C.P.B., Senator Trent Lott called Moyers's post-election commentary "the most blatantly partisan, irresponsible thing I've ever heard in my life, and yet the C.P.B. has not seemed to be willing to deal with Bill Moyers and that type of programming."
"The fact of the matter is, I agree," Halpern replied. She went on to note that the Public Broadcasting Act asked the C.P.B. to advance balanced programming, yet prohibited it from interfering in content. She said that when there were allegations of impropriety at the parent body of Voice of America "we were able to aggressively step in, review the transcript of the potential violation, and initiate penalties."
In addition to Halpern, Bush has appointed to the C.P.B. board another Republican fund-raiser, Gay Hart Gaines, who was a charter member and a chair of Gingrich's political-action committee, gopac. Bush has refused to appoint Chon Noriega, a professor of film, television, and digital media at U.C.L.A. and a co-founder of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, who was recommended in March of 2003 by the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle. Noriega, a Democrat, was interviewed that month by Rebecca Contreras, of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. He was asked, he remembers, the question that Lott asked Halpern: Was it appropriate for the C.P.B. to intervene in programming deemed politically biased? "It was clear that this was the important question," Noriega told me.
Noriega, who told Contreras that the C.P.B. should intervene only in extraordinary circumstances, has heard nothing about his appointment. A White House spokesperson, Healy Nully, said, "It is my understanding that we have asked for another candidate" from Daschle.
Moyers, who calls himself a liberal, is certainly not neutral, although he is more neutral than PBS's new recruits, Carlson and Gigot. In Moyers's opinion, Bush's new board members are not just politically connected--they are "ideological warriors." Mitchell was more discreet. "You have to have some concerns that a politically appointed board would be involved in content," she said. Of Halpern's reply to Lott, Coonrod told me that while "Cheryl is entitled to her opinions," he did not think it was "appropriate" for the C.P.B. to police PBS content.
Mitchell, fearing that the politics of public broadcasting were spinning out of control, tried diplomacy. At a breakfast with the C.P.B. board on December 8, 2003, she told the members that she was trying to develop new public-affairs programs. "I told them we viewed our air as an op-ed page," Mitchell recalled. "I also told them we could not do this without money from the C.P.B." Board members attacked Moyers as partisan. One member reportedly screamed, "You've got to get rid of Moyers!" Coonrod said he doesn't remember this incident, and Mitchell said, "I really can't talk about what goes on in confidential meetings. She did, however, recall that she had reminded the members that they were supposed to be "a firewall and PBS was to be the programmer."
Moyers turns seventy this June. Three years ago, he announced plans to leave PBS in 2001. But he decided to stay on after the attacks of September 11th. He put off announcing his departure when he was under assault in the fall of 2003, but on the eve of the February congressional hearing on public broadcasting he decided to announce that he would leave after the November election, to write a book about L.B.J. His impending departure strengthened an impression that the C.P.B. was in the ascendancy--an impression that was reinforced on March 1st, when the C.P.B. announced a major programming initiative, "America at a Crossroads." Under it, up to twenty million dollars will be invested in programs dealing with post-9/11 themes. In addition, Michael Pack said he is hoping to air a culture series hosted by the conservative critic Michael Medved, with a rotating liberal co-host. "This is the first time in my thirty-two years in public broadcasting that C.P.B. has ordered up programs for ideological instead of journalistic reasons," Moyers wrote to me in an e-mail. "So now we have C.P.B. funding two right-wingers, Gigot at the W.S.J. and Carlson at CNN--God bless them both!--who already own big megaphones in commercial media. How does that make public television different?"
Pat Mitchell said, "I welcome more public-affairs programming on the air," and added, "I'd love to have the twenty million dollars!" Among other choices, she would like to continue funding the Moyers program after he leaves. (David Brancaccio, the co-host of "Now," will be hosting the program, which will be reduced from an hour to thirty minutes.) "PBS will have to make that choice," Michael Pack said, confirming that while the C.P.B. supports the Carlson and Gigot programs, there won't be any financial support for "Now."
Pat Mitchell, who recently signed a new three-year contract, is paid three hundred and fifteen thousand dollars annually to deal with all these problems. Although she claims to be deeply committed to PBS, the Motion Picture Association of America considers her to be among the finalists to replace its longtime president, Jack Valenti.
This past winter, Mitchell was concentrating on PBS's own programming efforts, including an idea for a twenty-four-hour digital news channel. She envisioned it as a mixture of local, national, and international news, documentaries, and commentary, as well as a blend of TV, radio, and online information, and one that would include NPR programming. But one executive involved in the planning said that the venture would cost between thirty and fifty million dollars, and by April Mitchell had a scaled-down model in mind, perhaps just eight hours a day of fresh programming. The initiative is now budgeted at twenty million dollars, but it might not go further unless Mitchell can solicit funding.
When Moyers retires, he hopes to help establish a substantial trust fund for public broadcasting--another step toward liberating it from the pressures of politics, corporate underwriters, and ratings. C.P.B. data show that the federal subsidy for public broadcasting amounts to a dollar and forty-two cents per citizen, while in England it is almost twenty-seven dollars and in Canada almost seventeen. Over breakfast, before a visit to KCET, in Los Angeles, on March 24th, Mitchell attached a dollar figure to the fund. "A five-billion-dollar trust fund gives us the ability to make investments," she said. As digital television replaces the fading analogue model, the Federal Communications Commission plans to auction the analogue spectrum to wireless companies. Mitchell told me that she wanted to use part of these proceeds for a public-broadcasting trust fund, and said she was encouraged by a lunch conversation a few days earlier with Michael Powell, the F.C.C. chairman. "Chairman Powell has offered to be of help here," she said. Jonathan Cody, Powell's legal adviser, was more cautious, and said, "Generally, he understands and supports the idea of exploring a trust fund." Of course, Congress would also have to approve.
Mitchell's views sometimes seem in conflict with one another. She has declared that fund drives weakened public television's claim to be non-commercial, but by last year she had come to believe that she couldn't promote PBS for its intrinsic localism and, at the same time, castigate stations for local fund-raising decisions. Last June, Mitchell, along with Coonrod and station representatives, served on a public-broadcasting task force whose bleak report dismissed the idea of a "silver bullet," such as a trust fund, as a likely solution to PBS's financial problems. So for now Mitchell is willing to settle for more corporate underwriters, even though they tend to fund less adventurous or controversial programming. Underwriting income has declined thirty per cent over the last three years, and in March the C.P.B. relaxed strictures on corporate promotional messages. These strictures limit such messages to just over five minutes, airing at the beginning and the end of a program. This figure compares with more than seventeen minutes of advertising on commercial television.
Mitchell is aware that fund-raising, barely disguised advertising, undistinguished programming, and political compromises carry risks--that what is unique about PBS could be sabotaged. She calls it "the knife's edge." She also believes that a strong case can be made to preserve broadcasting that is unafraid of low ratings and small profits--that a medium to sponsor programs that would otherwise not reach an audience is a necessary counterweight to the commercial airwaves. For better or worse, that mission still belongs to PBS.
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