Public broadcasting’s unholy link to politics

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A 1985 blowup over a trip to Moscow revealed that political animals were again entrusted with shielding public TV from political pressure

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1985 issue of Channels, a magazine about the electronic media.

CPB Chairman Landau (left) brought the party line to the board room; Pfister (right) had seen CPB captured by partisan politics in the 1970s.

The prickly scene played itself out in about an hour, in front of a hushed audience. Then a vote: The board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting barred its president and another staffer from leading a public broadcasters’ trade delegation to Moscow.

Onlookers at the shoot-out May 15 [1985] had followed the emotional debate intently, but afterwards few could agree exactly how to assess what had happened. What did the episode say about CPB, the conduit for federal support of public broadcasting and the industry’s supposed “heat shield” against undue political influence? Was the board’s decision truly alarming, inconsequential, or merely accidental?

Many of the public broadcasters present were alarmed to hear White House appointees on the board give ideological reasons for their vote. It seemed a case of the heat shield generating its own heat, one broadcaster observed. CPB President Edward J. Pfister couldn’t live with the board’s decision; he resigned his office the next day.

From another viewpoint, however, the only real consequence would be one less junket to pay for. Sonia Landau, the board’s chairman since last September, said the matter would have amounted to a molehill if Pfister hadn’t resigned, and implied that he was finding an excuse to quit before the board got around to firing him.

Others were sure they had witnessed an accident. The pieces converged so suddenly and irrationally that the scene held the surprise and fascination of a highway wreck. Two willful personalities had clashed; for assorted reasons, the majority of board members came together to side with Landau.

The subject of the flare-up, the display of emotion, Pfister’s resignation — all were unexpected in their particulars. But for politically jaded observers, it had been easy to anticipate some sort of showdown for four years, ever since the election of a President hostile to taxpayer support of public broadcasting. Reagan’s appointments to the CPB board last September gave it a solid conservative bloc [see below]. And in January, that bloc installed as chairman Sonia Landau, who had headed Women for Reagan/Bush during last year’s campaign. The vote, by secret ballot, was six to four. Nine months later, the Moscow trip was defeated by the same margin.

That trip would seem an unlikely target for Reaganite assault: It was merely one of a series of respectably capitalist attempts to sell PBS shows overseas. The foray even promised a high cost/benefit ratio for the industry. The most recent overseas trip coordinated by CPB’s Office of International Affairs — last October, to Beijing. Tokyo, and Sydney — resulted in sales and co-production deals worth $387,000 so far. The cost was one tenth as much, and CPB’s share was raised from foundations just to avoid the specter of junketing on taxpayers’ money. CPB’s next planned trip — the ill-fated one, next September, to an Eastern Bloc television market in Moscow — was to cost CPB just $3,700, of which foundation grants would cover more than half.

Plans for the trip had been unquestioned until April. Landau says the board simply hadn’t focused on it before. But Pfister says she first raised the issue with him in April after she had lunch with Charles Wick, head of the U.S. Information Agency, the government’s overseas propagandist. USIA had sought free rights to distribute CPB-subsidized programs overseas — a request that was turned down by the same CPB office that planned the Moscow trip.

The disturbance over the trip whipped up so suddenly that one board member who later voted against it, Howard D. Gutin, had already signed up to go to Moscow when others warned him they were making an issue of the trip. He quickly cancelled. Gutin, who runs the Texas public television station that produces the country music series Austin City Limits for PBS, wasn’t certain he wanted to go anyway. “The only thing I’ve got to sell is Willie Nelson,” he said, “and I’m not sure the Soviets want Willie Nelson.”

CPB’s 10-member board usually meets every other month in its own chamber a few blocks away from the White House, but on the ides of May it convened in San Francisco. The idea was to be close to PBS’s annual meeting at the St. Francis Hotel there, but CPB’s shoot-out ended up overshadowing the larger convention.

Sonia Landau had asked for a staff report, and when it came up on the agenda she made her point directly: “I am concerned that an institution that operates on federal money is dealing with the Soviet government. . . . I am concerned because I am so mindful of our heat-shield requirement, which is, as you know, that we are not influenced by Congress, we’re not influenced by the White House. I’d like to also think it means we shouldn’t be influenced by the Kremlin.” PBS could send a delegation, she said, but CPB, which handles federal funds, should not.

David Stewart, the mild, white-bearded director of CPB’s international activities, gave his defense: U.S. businessmen are swarming over Moscow, and the BBC and even the Muppets were doing co-productions with Russian television. “For once,” American public television should be one of the first on the scene, he urged.

But the board’s Reaganite members were looking far beyond public television to the prime obsession of their kind: the Evil Empire, as the President had called it. Board member Richard Brookhiser wanted to know: Would Russian programs be imported to play on PBS?

If the stations wished, Stewart replied. He would serve only as a facilitator.

Brookhiser didn’t want any part of it. “I mean, the Bolshoi is fine. You know, ballet is ballet. Nature programs . . . little things grazing on the tundra. Fine . . . But if we are going to be opening the doors to wonderful Soviet ideas on their own history or something, this is just disastrous. He gave examples of how the Soviets view their history and called them liars. “I certainly don’t want to be facilitators for that.”

That possibility also jarred Ken Towery, a board member who once served as deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency. He reminded Stewart that USIA is forbidden by law from showing its propaganda domestically. Considering that, he asked, wouldn’t it be strange to spend tax dollars to bring back Soviet government productions?

Board members began to get argumentative. “I don’t see very much difference,” said Sharon Rockefeller, “between delegations which have gone to Beijing twice now, I understand, which is a totally Communist country —”

“We’re not negotiating an arms treaty with them, though,” Landau interrupted.

Rockefeller was unconvinced. If CPB pulled out of the trip, she said emphatically, “I think that some fundamental rights will be trampled on, and I think we are really getting into an area in which we do not belong.”

The central question became whether CPB — a nonprofit corporation that gets almost all of its money from Congress can spend money as independently as any broadcast firm or must take cues from the government. In other words, is its money “federal” or “private”? Landau’s position was clear: “I don’t think I want CPB, when I am the custodian of that federal money, to be sending a CPB party there.”

It didn’t matter to her, she said, that most of the trip’s cost would be paid by a foundation grant, not tax money. Public broadcasters could still go to Moscow on their own, she said, but she moved a resolution to withdraw CPB from the trip.

Ed Pfister asked to speak, and began quietly: “I guess, ladies and gentlemen, that in many ways this is probably the single most important issue for me as a public broadcaster that you ever discussed in my time here.” As usual, he sounded as if he were patiently lecturing his bosses on the board — a trait that could not have endeared him to them. When Congress puts its appropriation in CPB’s hands, the federal dollars become private dollars, he said.

CPB’s job is to communicate, he said. “Our job is to go around and above almost all of the efforts that are sometimes made to obstruct communication.” Withdrawing from the trip would be “inappropriate,” he advised.

Accusations that the trip would be a “junket” emerged, possibly adding one or two more votes to the majority. Lee Hanley, a Republican, said he feared that Congress would regard the Moscow trip, during these budget-conscious times, as wasteful. Harry O’Connor opposed any junkets that would divert funds from programming.

Board members Lillie Herndon and The day after quitting as CPB’s president, Pfister warned public broadcasters that they couldn’t rely on the corporation to protect their independence. Lloyd Kaiser joined Rockefeller in defense of the trip. Then the vote was called, the motion passed six to four, and Landau dismissed David Stewart from the table. “We’ll be in touch,” she said.

If this had been just an ordinary board-management dispute, Pfister said later, he wouldn’t have resigned the next day.

God knows, there had been enough of those. Pfister often had been either stalwart or stubborn, depending on which board member was asked. While the board was cautiously staying neutral on the issue of commercial advertising on public television in 1982, he vociferously opposed the proposal until the board told him to hush. Both Republicans and Democrats felt he was often unresponsive to his bosses on the board. In January the board argued for four hours in private session over whether to keep Pfister and his vice presidents, says Gutin. “The officers were reappointed, but not without a lot of gnashing of teeth.”

The clashes continued, often over minor decisions, but this new dispute was something else again—the board wasn’t simply sticking its nose into management details. It was inserting politics. Pfister detected a “current of ideology” running through the May 15 debate — withdrawing from the Moscow trip because of arms negotiations; fearing imported Russian propaganda; worrying about what Congress would think.

“I tried for 12 hours to talk my way out of it,” Pfister says. “The answer that I consistently came to was that I could not represent that kind of thinking.”

On Thursday, May 16, the day after the board’s vote, Pfister announced his resignation and the board accepted it in a quick noontime meeting. The news raced through the PBS convention, where support for his stand was nearly universal.

Pfister was already scheduled to speak to PBS station officials after their Friday luncheon. So when he approached the microphone, they stood and applauded at length, not only for him, but also for the independence of their industry.

It was a fairly typical public broadcasting speech, talking up integrity, the need to be a “civilized voice,” and so on. But the words carried extra weight this time. Pfister spoke of broadcasting bringing people together —  “even those with whom we may be in disagreement.” And he warned the station executives: “With the CPB board’s decision this week, more of the obligation to safeguard independence falls squarely on your shoulders.”

That was a “cheap shot,” Landau later declared to a reporter. As Pfister left the room amid a second standing ovation, she made a thumbs-down gesture for those who were watching her. Within minutes, the two antagonists met at close range outside the ballroom, according to several accounts. As Pfister approached, trailed by a flock of reporters, Landau could be heard exclaiming, “Can you believe that man?”

“Yes, Sonia, I think you should believe it,” Pfister replied.

“Oh, Ed Pfister, you’re incredible, just incredible,” Landau shouted, following him into the convention press room. “You don’t know the meaning of the word honest. You don’t give a damn about this organization.” As reporters took notes, she turned away, hissing, “You’re a schmuck.”

Fortunately for the sake of a complete historical record this exchange took place in San Francisco, where newspapers delight in officials’ use of colorful language. The New York Times didn’t dip into these details, perhaps for reasons of taste and possibly also because its television critic on the scene, John Corry, is married to Landau and was himself hopping mad at Pfister.

“PBS Head Quits in a Masterpiece of Theater,” headlined the San Francisco Examiner, erring more than slightly about who had quit.

PBS and CPB had shared headlines a dozen years ago, when ideology once before intruded into the affairs of public broadcasting. Nixon aides, some of whom were planning and covering up Watergate during the same period, were plotting to gain control over both CPB and PBS and eliminate what they saw as liberal, anti-Nixon public affairs programming on public television.

In official statements starting in 1971 the Nixon team played on local public broadcasters’ fears of a centralized “fourth network” and lauded “the principle of localism.”

In private, however, Nixon aides engaged in tough-guy strategizing: They planned to redirect CPB funds from National Educational Television and other major producers of “objectionable programs” and send more funds to the local stations, which they expected would be more conservative and too weak to produce news analysis of consequence. The White House aide in charge, Clay T. Whitehead, estimated in a memo that “local stations’ support can be bought for about $30 million.”

(At one point Chuck Colson presciently advised other aides to be less explicit in their memos, which could be leaked. The memos were later released by the Carter Administration under the Freedom of Information Act.)

When new Nixon appointments gave his partisans control of CPB’s board in 1972, they installed USIA official Henry Loomis as president, and former Republican Congressman Thomas B. Curtis as chairman, and announced that CPB would take control over most of PBS’s program decision-making. The move was checked in 1973, however, when the stations reorganized PBS as a cooperative under their control. Decentralization had been Nixon’s rallying cry, but PBS used it against him. A key strategist for PBS was Ralph B. Rogers, a successful businessman active in the Dallas PBS station, and at his side was a young assistant named Ed Pfister.

Eventually the plotting backfired on Nixon. He had expected Curtis, the new CPB chairman, to be a team player, but Curtis resigned in 1973, citing White House interference. Other board members rebelled, and the White House called off the dogs.

Yet even though Nixon didn’t push public affairs off its schedule, public television has never been the same. Some say the experience made it more cautious in its public affairs programming. Certainly the industry took a different shape.

Most decision-making authority over national program funding has been transferred, piece by piece, from CPB to the stations and their cooperatives. And in the same spirit, the CPB Board six years ago took itself out of decisions on individual grants to television producers and gave semi-autonomy to a new Program Fund that distributes the grants. This spring, public radio stations decided to assume nearly full support of National Public Radio in much the same way that the public television stations took over PBS a dozen years before.

The resulting industry is structured nothing like network television, which is streamlined to make money by serving its funders (advertisers). Public broadcasting reshaped itself with a radically different objective: to shield itself from control by its funders. It dispersed its money and power, fashioning a cumbersome structure bristling with checks and balances, layered with heat shields.

“If you stand outside public broadcasting, it’s a hodgepodge,” says Pfister. “If you stand inside, and understand how it has to do its work, it’s not a hodgepodge; it’s damned near a work of genius.”

And when the layers of committees and bureaucrats fail to discourage political meddling, there are still such individuals as Curtis and Pfister who can call attention to a breach by resigning.

Pfister likes the idea of CPB. He believes there should be some kind of intermediary between Congress and the broadcasters who actually make program decisions. But CPB loses its effectiveness, he says, when ideology intrudes. “As soon as that happens, CPB becomes the centerpiece of suspicion and anxiety.”

When he heard what happened in San Francisco, John Wicklein, a former director of the CPB Program Fund, admitted to feelings of suspicion and anxiety: “I am afraid this is the start of a campaign to make CPB programs, especially in the area of public affairs, follow the Reagan line.”

“To me that’s the same kind of chilling pressure tactics the CPB board was using during the Nixon years,” says Robert K. Avery, a University of Utah professor who coauthored a history of the Nixon-CPB affair. “When I see this kind of pressure being brought to bear from the top, I cannot imagine CPB being willing to venture far to take creative risks.

That kind of “chilling effect” may very well set in, causing some public broadcasters to watch their steps, anticipating what Sonia Landau thinks appropriate. At the very least, the highly partisan board has shown its potential for mischief. In a number of ways, however, the San Francisco episode, with its farcical moments, was far less serious than Nixon’s scheming. No one produced evidence of any conspiracy directed by the White House this time. Programming was not the direct target, and the practical effect was small: Come September, a dozen public broadcasters will go to Moscow anyway — under PBS’s sponsorship rather than CPB’s.

By that time, the CPB Board hopes to have hired a new president. A search committee composed entirely of Reagan appointees has begun to line up candidates. The person they install as president, by his or her priorities, may tell us a lot about whether CPB is again being used as a political instrument. Will Pfister’s replacement be strong on communications or on the right kind of politics?

Sonia Landau wants to get on with CPB’s future and put Pfister in the past. She resents people who impugn her motives. Richard Brookhiser dismisses charges that the board has been politicized, explaining, “It’s the partisan complaints of people who are now in the minority.”

He has a point. The Democrats had not been shy about appointing highly political people to the same board: a labor leader and activist attorneys, for example. When Henry Geller was Carter’s top communications policymaker, he says, he opposed naming “political animals” to oversee CPB, but Carter did so anyway. Except for Sharon Rockefeller, their terms expired and they weren’t reappointed. That’s natural; their party lost the White House. That’s politics.

But should party politics govern federal support for public broadcasting? Geller thinks not. Some of Carter’s appointees were able people, just as some of Reagan’s are, but what put them on the board was their politics, Geller contends. Some have not had the substance to resist chances to take partisan advantage. As Geller puts it, the board is and has been a “dumping ground for political favors.” The Nixon White House memos reveal how key congressional chairmen could virtually force the White House to appoint favored constituents to the CPB Board.

Congress and Lyndon Johnson botched CPB in its original setup by putting Presidential appointees in charge, according to Geller. Nixon, in his plotting to take control of CPB, only took advantage of that weakness.

A better way of appointing the CPB Board was proposed in 1979 by the second Carnegie Commission on public broadcasting. It recommended that a “public telecommunications trust” be created, with its trustees appointed for nonrenewable nine-year terms by the President. But the President would choose names from a slate drawn up by a panel “chaired by the Librarian of Congress, drawn from governmental institutions devoted to the arts, the sciences, the humanities, and the preservation of our heritage,” and including two public broadcasters.

As it is, the CPB board is chosen by means of a questionable interaction among White House and congressional aides, whose daily business is politics.

Compared to that, the Carnegie Commission’s nominating method would be more likely to put nonpolitical persons of substance on the board.

We can hope that fears of CPB’s “politicization” are unfounded, as the board majority attempts to reassure us. Yet there is always a next time.

Richard Nixon acknowledged this in 1972, even as his staff connived to get liberal commentary off PBS. As his aide Whitehead recorded in a memo, Nixon told a group of public broadcasters gathered at the White House that “you never know who’s going to be sitting in [my] chair next, and that some Presidents might be inclined to use federal support of public broadcasting to their advantage.”

Well-connected board members

Political connections were behind the White House appointment of many CPB Board members in the corporation’s 18-year existence. So it’s not too surprising that most members of the board’s new majority have close ties to the conservatives now on top.

Chairman Sonia Landau served in both Reagan campaigns — last year as head of Women for Reagan/Bush — and once ran for Congress as a Republican. Harry O’Connor had produced and syndicated Ronald Reagan’s pre-Presidential radio show. Industrialist William L. Hanley Jr. was head of the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign in Connecticut. R. Kenneth Towery is a political consultant for conservative candidates and was previously a deputy director of USIA and the top aide to right-wing Texas Sen. John Tower.

Richard Brookhiser once wrote speeches for Bush and is now an editor of William F. Buckley’s National Review. The sixth vote against the Russian trip was cast by Howard Gutin, one of two public television station presidents appointed to the board last fall. Gutin runs the sister stations in Austin and San Antonio, KLRU and KLRN, and is a retired Army film and television official. Lloyd Kaiser, who backed the Moscow trip, runs WQED, Pittsburgh.

The remaining three board members, originally appointed by previous Presidents, voted for the Moscow trip. Sharon Percy Rockefeller has sterling political ties of her own, as a leader of the Equal Rights Amendment ratification drive, daughter of an ex-senator from Illinois, and wife of a West Virginia senator. Lillie E. Herndon is a former president of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. Howard A. White is general counsel of ITT World Communications.

The only political restriction on board appointments is that only 6 of the 10 members can be affiliated with any single party. Six of the present directors are Republicans, Rockefeller and White list themselves as Democrats, and the two station managers are independents.

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