Nixon Administration Public Broadcasting Papers, Summary of 1969

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When Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was in its infancy and the Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) had yet to be created. Staff responsibilities for public broadcasting rested largely with Peter Flanigan, Assistant to the President, and Clay T. Whitehead, then a White House staff assistant. The new Administration recognized that it would shape the future of public broadcasting in America and reap credit or criticism for its efforts.

Telecom policy chief Clay T. Whitehead. (Photo: National Archives.)

The first action the new President took was to appoint Albert L. Cole, a Director of Reader’s Digest, to a vacancy on the 15-member Board President Johnson had appointed the previous March. Cole was appointed March 15, 1969.

The first evidence of anyone’s thinking about public broadcasting in the Nixon Administration is found in a May 6 memo from Whitehead to Dwight Chapin, Deputy Assistant to the President. In recommending that the President send a congratulatory message to the University of Wisconsin on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of educational radio broadcasting at the University, Whitehead said, “I think it is desirable for the President to be associated in an affirmative way with public broadcasting.

Later that month, Frank Pace, Jr., Chairman of the CPB Board, wrote to the President requesting a meeting with himself and Cole to discuss the potential contributions of CPB to American education. On June 4, Flanigan responded that such a meeting would be useful but should await development of plans for a White House conference on uses of telecommunications technology.

Also in June, a long-term financing bill, prepared by CPB at the Administration’s request, was circulated among various agencies for their reactions. (The draft bill provided for permanent Federal financing for CPB through an earmarked two percent manufacturers excise tax on radio and television sets, and an annual Federal matching payment equal to twice the excess over $50 million of the total non-Federal contributions to public broadcasting.) In testimony before the House Communications and Power Subcommittee on June 16, CPB President John W. Macy, Jr., noted the Nixon Administration’s interest in public broadcasting and in finding a solution to the problem of long-term financing.

On June 20, Whitehead wrote to Richard Nathan, Assistant Director, Bureau of the Budget (BOB), indicating that he agreed with the Council of Economic Advisors’ criticism of the proposed excise tax on television sets and radios. “The Administration would like to be identified in a positive way with public broadcasting,” Whitehead said, “but I do not see how in good conscience we can be very favorable on any of the proposals so far advanced.”

Whitehead suggested several other ideas for BOB to consider and told Nathan, “[T]he point I am trying to get at is that public broadcasting should be relatively self-sufficient in order that it will be independent of the appropriations process (and therefore of the inevitable political pressures) and so that there will be the appropriate incentives to develop programming that is responsive to the public interest.”

In late June, Chester Finn of White House Counsellor Daniel P. Moynihan’s staff attended a conference on public television programming in Kettering, Wisconsin. Upon his return, Finn prepared a memorandum for Moynihan in which he forecast that public broadcasting was on the verge of “a great step forward.”

“Although the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a Johnson creation, it is clear that this Administration has the opportunity to put its stamp on public television, and for it to really flourish in the next few years,” said Finn.

In his July 1 memo, Finn expressed concern that “because it is such an inexpensive program, public television risks falling between the boxes in the Administration.” He suggested that someone in the White House, such as Leonard Garment, follow it, as Douglass Cater had in the Johnson Administration.

White House Staff Assistant Jonathan Rose sent Whitehead a copy of Finn’s memo with a note which said:

Apparently there was a conference…on public TV broadcasting. Macy called Moynihan who sent Finn. Why didn’t Macy call us? I suggest we maybe send Moynihan a memo under PMF (Peter M. Flanigan) signature saying that Garment and we will handle it. I talked to Garment and he doesn’t want it in his lap right now.

On July 4, Whitehead sent a memo to Moynihan apprising him of Flanigan’s and Whitehead’s activities in the public broadcasting area. Whitehead said he was trying to coordinate these with Garment.

On August 7, Whitehead sent Flanigan a comprehensive memorandum describing the history and development of public broadcasting in the United States, public television’s sources of programming, CPB’s priorities, the problem of long-term financing, and the Administration’s options. With respect to the latter, Whitehead wrote:

The Nixon Administration’s support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will shape the future of public television in America. Since relatively little more money can affect very high visibility when put into broadcasting, the Administration should give the matter thorough consideration.

The Administration has several options. It can continue to give the Corporation for Public Broadcasting very small appropriations on the theory that public television has not generally been an influential, constructive force and the Corporation has not yet developed its leadership capacity. The result of such action will probably be to perpetuate the disunity and ineffectiveness of the public broadcasting system as a whole, at least for several years.

Alternatively, the government can expand its investment with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — financially and otherwise. For the Administration to assess how large and beneficial an impact its investment in public broadcasting can be, the Corporation must articulate its role more clearly. Does it plan to function primarily as a revenue sharing institution or as a selective board that will encourage the better stations and independent production units to make national programs? What are the programs to do: provide cultural enrichment; instruct people in dealing with problems of everyday living; provide a voice for ethnic groups; generate awareness of contemporary events? Can it coordinate activities of local stations and change the fragmentary nature of the public broadcasting system?

There is some question that its staff is capable and/or willing to answer such “hard” questions. Until the Corporation’s objectives are clearly formulated, it is difficult to imagine any massive outlay of federal funds to it. Perhaps the Administration’s most constructive action at this point would be to provoke answers to these questions. The establishment of a CPB task force, which the Administration might assist in, may be the best way to resolve the issue of priorities.

On August 11, Whitehead sent another memo to Flanigan, in which he said, “Although the CPB was established in the Johnson Administration, the Administration will reap the credit or criticism for whatever becomes of public broadcasting over the next decade….”

On September 25, Nathan sent Whitehead a description of a draft bill to authorize payments to CPB for fiscal years 1971-1973. This, the Assistant Budget Director explained, “would allow the Administration adequate time to come up with a more permanent solution later….”

On September 29, Whitehead prepared the first draft of a memo to Flanigan proposing that a small working group “made up of people who have a substantive knowledge or interest in the [public broadcasting] area, as well as people who can gauge the potential impact on the Administration image,” be convened to discuss what the Administrations s position on public broadcasting should be. The memo was redrafted and sent to Flanigan on November 4.

In the interim, President Nixon met with CPB Board Chairman Pace and Director Cole. The meeting was the outgrowth of a conversation Nixon had had with Cole during a dinner at Hobe Lewis’ house. According to a memo Flanigan wrote for Nixon prior to the meeting, Pace and Cole wanted to urge the President to give greater budgetary support to CPB (CPB was seeking a $20 million appropriation for FY 70; the BOB had recommended $10 million). Flanigan recommended that Nixon “indicate broad support for the objectives of public broadcasting,” but point out that “inflation pressures continue to require strict control of federal expenditures.”

Flanigan summarized the Nixon, Cole, Pace meeting in an October 27 “Memorandum for the President’s File.” According to the memo, Cole told Nixon that the current programming by National Educational Television (NET) was being underwritten by the Ford Foundation and Cole felt this was inappropriate in that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Flanigan said Nixon “entirely agreed” with Cole and after the meeting suggested that Flaniqan discuss with BOB Director Robert Mayo an increase in CPB’s FY 70 appropriation contingent on “the establishment of an independent producing unit.”

On the afternoon of October 24, Flanigan sent a memo to Mayo informing him that the President wanted CPB “to have an additional $5 million.” Flanigan told Mayo, “The President feels very strongly that public broadcasting should not be dependent for content on Foundation supported programs.”

“When the final [budget] decision is made,” Flanigan said, “it is important that I have an opportunity to talk first to Pace and Cole in order to inform them of other desires of the President which will be a condition of his support.”

On October 30, Whitehead sent Flanigan a memo which described the current situation with respect to noncommercial programming sources:

NET is now the only major source of noncommercial programming and has been for the last decade. They are funded largely by the Ford Foundation, but there seems to be little indication that Ford has or wants much influence over program selection. In fact, the management of NET exercises little initiative in this area and the programming appears to flow upward from the individual NET producers.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been encouraging competition with NET primarily by grants to the better noncommercial stations around the country to develop their own programming that would be suitable for nationwide distribution. NET is unhappy that their domination of the field is disappearing and apparently resents the intrusion of the Corporation.

From the standpoint of the President’s objectives, the grants to individual stations cut both ways: the people who run the educational and public television stations around the country tend to be relatively liberal, but the geographical diversification probably would promote an overall less liberal emphasis than the New York City centralized NET. Funding a separate production unit to “compete” with NET would not be a complete bed of roses either, since the liberal bent of people in the performing arts is well known. However, we could presumably have a hand in picking the head of such a major new organization if it were funded by the Corporation.

Whitehead went on to recommend that if BOB could find an extra $5 million, “half of it should go for the increased grants to local stations to develop new programs in the interest of more balanced geographical distribution of programming, and half should go to begin planning a new programming entity on the West Coast.”

On November 3, Flanigan sent Whitehead a memorandum Flanigan had prepared for the President “based on an agreement reached with Frank Pace.” The memorandum said:

I talked with Frank Pace and Al Cole regarding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.In accordance with your instructions, I made it clear to Pace that the proposed $5 million increase in the funding for the Corporation was contingent upon the creation of new program production facilities to replace National Educational Television. NET has been largely Ford Foundation financed, the most recently elected chairman being Norman Cousins. It was agreed that while NET would be used until the new facilities are in operation, the degree of its funding would not increase: rather the funding would decrease to zero over the next two or three years. Pace agrees with these conditions. He points out however, that there are limitations on his ability to control total programming and broadcasting policies of non-commercial stations. Non-CPB financed programs produced by NET and others may have anti-Administration content. In addition, noncommercial stations which have received CPB grants may carry anti-Administration programs. I told him we were aware of that problem. I stated our position as being that government funding of CPB should not be used for the creation of anti-Administration programming or for the support of program-producing organizations which use other funds to create anti-Administration programs. Mr. Pace agrees with this and appreciates the additional support that will be forthcoming for CPB.

Flanigan noted in the margin that when he read the memo to Pace, Pace said it might take three or four years to decrease NET funding to zero.

Meanwhile, plans went forward to convene a small working group to consider developing an Administration position on public broadcasting.

On November 4, Whitehead sent Flanigan a memorandum which said:

Since the Nixon Administration will set the tone and pace (no pun intended) for the future growth of public broadcasting, we should give some real attention to how we want to see it develop and how much money we are willing to spend. This is potentially a high visibility area where we can reflect considerable credit on the President at relatively low expenditures.

The memo then outlined the issues the group should address:

1. Is the Federal Government to take an active role in Corporation budgeting and planning, or to simply allocate a bloc grant for unspecified uses? What initiatives should we encourage?

2. What audience or audiences can public broadcasting reach that will be most useful; what criteria should the Corporation use in selecting the mix of audiences it will seek to reach; in a broad sense, what should the Corporation seek to reach in terms of trade-off between quality of programming and size of audience?

3. Will the Corporation function primarily as a revenue sharing institution or as an activist organization to provide central direction for public broadcasting?

4. What is the role of Government information dissemination in public broadcasting; should we make a major effort to use public broadcasting as a way of achieving social goals; should we use it as a way of disseminating information about Government programs?

5. How is the Corporation to be financed; what mix of advertising, taxation, and Federal matching provides the best long-run solution; how can the method of funding be used to create incentives for the Corporation to move in the directions we consider most appropriate?

6. Should the Corporation be insulated from the annual appropriation process either through a dedicated tax or through multi-year authorizations and appropriations?

7. What is the constituency of public broadcasting, its mix, and its size? What groups of people will look most favorably on a major or moderate Administration initiative in this area? Are there any potential political pitfalls?

On November 12, Flanigan sent a memorandum to Nancy Hanks, Charles McWhorter, Garment, Ray Price, Frank Shakespeare and Whitehead, inviting them to join the working group Whitehead had proposed. Flanigan’s memo incorporated the questions which Whitehead thought should be addressed.

Subsequent invitations to join the group were extended to FCC Chairman Dean Burch and White House Science Advisor Lee DuBridge.

On November 17, CPB President John Macy met with Flanigan and Whitehead to discuss the Administration’s position with respect to public broadcasting. Following the meeting, CPB Public Affairs Director Bill Duke sent Flanigan and Whitehead a schedule of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) public affairs programs to be aired on WETA, Channel 26, Washington, from November 27 to December 7. An accompanying note from Duke to Flanigan said, “Following his conversation with you recently, Mr. Macy thought it would be a good idea to keep you personally informed of programs of particular interest on a regular basis. Attached is our first effort. We will appreciate any comments you might have.”

On Monday, November 24, the first meeting of the public broadcasting working group was held. Attending in the place of USIA Director Shakespeare, was Deputy Director Henry Loomis.

On December 5, Macy wrote Budget Director Mayo to appeal what Macy had learned to be the Administration’s intent to request $15 million for CPB for FY 71. Macy sent Whitehead a copy of the letter on December 9.

On December 17, Flanigan prepared a “Memorandum for the Staff Secretary,” to which he attached a “Memorandum for the President” which reminded the President of his earlier decision to direct BOB to request an FY 70 supplemental for CPB of $5 million, and recommended to the President that in view of his discussion with Pace and Cole and the increase to $15 million in FY 70, that “it would be unfortunate not to increase the Corporation’s funding next year [FY 71].”

Because Macy’s December 5 letter had not been sent in the proper form, Macy sent another letter requesting review of the amount proposed for CPB for FY 71 to the President on December 18.

On December 29, Macy sent Whitehead CPB’s official comments on the proposed three-year authorization bill. A memo affixed to the comments said, “As you will note, our study of the text as provided by the BOB produced a generally negative report along with some suggested lines of improvement.”

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