KQED drops Mondavi project in underwriting controversy

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KQED has dropped plans for a public TV documentary about pioneering Napa Valley winemaker Robert Mondavi after widespread newspaper reports that an organization funded largely by Mondavi had supplied the first and only seed money.

A week later, Nov. 22, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the donation by the Napa-based American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts resulted from direct discussions between KQED and the Mondavi winery’s marketing department.

“Mondavi executives offered to provide full sponsorship, [KQED Vice President John] Boland said, but KQED guidelines did not permit that,” the newspaper reported. “Instead, KQED turned to the American Center . . .” The winery also agreed to give the station leads to other potential donors.

The station pitched a positive profile. “We envision a program that conveys Mondavi’s innovative spirit, determination and leadership, all of which have made him a symbol of the finest his industry embodies,” gushed a KQED synopsis quoted by the Chronicle. Ricki Green, a freelance producer hired after the fundraising, told the newspaper she planned to do a balanced film “not free of criticism.”

KQED Board member Sasha Futran, who raised the issue in September, had gotten access to KQED correspondence about the Mondavi project and sent copies to all 27 board members. “The Chronicle apparently got a hold of the documents,” she said last week.

The station blamed the collapse of the Mondavi project on Futran, one of several on the board elected by KQED members from a slate backed by the watchdog Committee to Save KQED.

“Unfortunately, despite the fact that the total integrity of KQED’s editorial control of the project has never been breached, the recent spate of unfair accusations and the resulting negative publicity has created a perception of loss of editorial control, making continuation of the project untenable,” wrote Mary Bitterman, president of the San Francisco station, in a Nov. 15 letter to the funder, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. KQED said it would return the $50,000 seed money.

The flap occurs at a time when many public TV stations spend nearly all their regular budgets on routine operations and must raise outside money to make any sizable new programs. And the only funders for a program topic usually have at least a general interest in that topic. While KQED denies it, some San Franciscans say the interests of the Mondavi profile funder came too close to Mondavi himself.

“It’s a matter of distance,” said Futran. “It’s pretty simple to me.” She said KQED management is misleading the board and the public, and management returns the charge.

Futran said the documents contain “devastating” evidence that station reps talked with Mondavi’s winery about funding the bio before the American Center agreed to pay $50,000 for R&D in August. The American Center, founded and initially funded by Mondavi, is developing a cultural center in the Napa Valley.

“What’s in the documents, I honestly don’t know,” said Boland, KQED’s v.p., marketing and development. “There were probably four different wine-country programs presented to the Mondavis … but that’s not a secret.”

KQED initially downplayed the American Center’s $50,000 grant as a small part of the expected $500,000 production budget, but the station has sought more from the center. A contract released by the station said that the center had right of first refusal to give an additional $150,000 for production after reviewing a report on R&D work.

The decision would be made by Clifford Adams, director of the center and a former Mondavi winery executive. “If the program seemed to meet the goals and objectives of the center, and could be used positively by the center, then we would say, ‘Sure, let’s go ahead,'” Adams told the Chronicle. But if the plans zeroed in on Mondavi family feuds, the center would not have supplied more cash, he said.

“We’re somewhat upset that a board member saw fit to take it to the press when an internal process would have taken a look at it and come to a resolution,” said Leo Martinez, KQED Board chairman and academic dean at Hastings College of the Law, before publication of the Chronicle story. “We were given money to research the project. I honestly don’t feel there was anything improper with that. By any objective measure, Robert Mondavi is a giant in his field and in the area.”

The project was spoiled by the spread of inaccurate information, Martinez told Current. “It was widely reported that [KQED] would take a big chunk of money to carry through with the project. That wasn’t yet a gleam in the eye.”

Martinez said he was not aware of the $150,000 option in the contract. He said he had not yet had time to read the KQED correspondence that Futran had photocopied and sent to board members.

Futran objected to the Mondavi-related funding at the KQED Board’s Sept. 26 meeting and the board referred the matter to its Media Policy Committee, which met Nov. 12. The committee found no violations of KQED or PBS guidelines, according to Boland.

Media critics Ben Bagdikian and Norman Solomon and journalist Peter Sussman spoke to the committee about conflicts of interest.

“The whole process was polluted,” said Sussan, president of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the Chronicle.

“There’s no gray area, it’s so flagrant,” said Solomon, a nationally syndicated columnist who has worked with FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a progressive press watchdog group. “It’s appalling that the project went as far as it did.”

“The marketing department … owes its personal income to bringing home the bacon to this station, and that’s who’s heading this thing,” Solomon said.

PBS distribution of the proposed program was “a bauble to dangle” in front of the wine executives, Solomon said. “For them, it’s just another investment. They could kick in a couple hundred thousand and get a documentary fed on the PBS system. That’s a pretty good investment.”

The Mondavi flap arose before KQED’s annual board election, but balloting was nearly over before much press coverage appeared. With 26,000 members casting ballots, all nine seats went to board-nominated candidates. Two challengers backed by the Committee to Save KQED, including radio producer Maria Gilardin, were defeated.

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