Media-watchers check in on PBS/Harper’s kerfuffle

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The dustup, or at least perceived dustup, between Harper’s and PBS is getting more attention, with the magazine’s publisher sharing more details with the Columbia Journalism Review.

Last week, the New York Post first reported that PBS yanked ads from upcoming issues of Harper’s after an essay critical of the network ran in the magazine’s October issue. Today CJR reports that PBS confirmed it pulled an ad from this month’s issue, but the network declined comment on whether it yanked the other ads. “[T]o have done such a petty thing does make me suspicious,” MacArthur says.

CJR‘s David Uberti adds: “Pulling advertisements is an age-old tactic for businesses facing media criticism to seek retribution. But in the case of PBS, which exists in part as a way to limit commercial influence on educational television, doing so just feeds into [Harper’s writer] Eugenia Williamson’s thesis — that the idealistic, Great Society-era initiative often behaves more like a corporate or political organism.”

The reputed tit-for-tat was also sized up Friday on WGBH’s Beat the Press, a weekly show on the Boston public TV station. WGBH itself had something of a starring role in the Harper’s story — in its opening scene, activists protest conservative philanthropist David Koch’s seat on the station’s board.

The show’s panelists consider whether PBS should have pulled the ads: “It’s dumb to play that game,” says panelist Justin Ellis, an assistant editor with Nieman Lab. But the Beat the Press segment also featured some direct responses to the Harper’s story and its criticisms of PBS and WGBH. Host Emily Rooney calls the piece “snarky” while admitting she didn’t read it all the way through. And Callie Crossley, a host on WGBH-FM, points out that Koch’s seat on WGBH’s board “has not influenced Nova’s ability to say climate change is real,” referring to the nationally broadcast science show produced by the station.

UPDATE (Oct 7, 10:58 a.m.): In an email to Current, Andrea Downing, co-president of PBS Distribution, said that her marketing team initially agreed to move the PBS ad in the October issue of Harper’s to November and December after the magazine alerted them to the publication of Williamson’s essay. “When the Harper’s article was published, my staff specifically called my attention to it and the ads we had planned for November and December,” she wrote.

“To make it clear, I had no issue with the essay,” she continued. “It was my ultimate decision, however, that the later timing did not meet PBSd’s needs since THE ROOSEVELTS series was airing the week of September 14 and the DVD became available on September 16. It appears that our concern about timing was not communicated clearly to Harper’s.

“At no time did PBS suggest that we remove the ads from Harper’s. Nor did Harper’s indicate that they had a problem with Public Media Distribution canceling the ads as Harper’s had originally offered to cancel or push the ads.”

  • So Downing is claiming she didn’t know that the ads were moved prior to publication of the article in Harpers? Hard to believe she wasn’t informed of what was sure to be a high-profile decision.