The emperor’s old clothes:
it’s time to retailor CPB

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For nearly 30 years, since it was created by Congress in the Johnson Administration, CPB has been the nonprofit organization that serves as the conduit for federal aid to public TV and radio. Its board members, like many federal appointees, are largely chosen through the patronage process. This commentary was written by David Stewart, who retired in 1996 as CPB’s director of international activities.

The board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is now searching for a new president, the eighth in less than 30 years. In my judgment, there is another urgent matter requiring the board’s attention; it needs to support an amendment in the law that created the Corporation, one that would change the manner in which CPB Board members are selected.

I have been professionally associated with public broadcasting for nearly 45 years. I joined CPB as a member of its original staff in 1968 because I thought it represented public broadcasting’s best hope of reconciling its divisive factions and providing the leadership it richly deserves and desperately needs. When I left CPB 27 years later, I was forced to conclude that the hope had become a grave disappointment. Far from reducing discord, CPB had become a major player in public broadcasting’s unremitting and self-destructive arguments. As a senior staff member during these years and in some sense part of the problem, I regret not having spoken out sooner. Perhaps better late than never. Nearly three decades of observing CPB close-up have convinced me that only an essential change in the way CPB Board members are selected offers some prospect of achieving the bright future projected for the organization by the first Carnegie Commission and the Congress in 1967.

Over the years, CPB Boards have largely squandered their opportunities to provide leadership. They have been almost exclusively preoccupied by process and politics. There are reasons for this — it is what they know best. Although it is the least of their inadequacies, most board members have had little direct experience with professional broadcasting. They have been fiscally responsible and have dealt with Congress persuasively. But you have to look hard among their membership to find towering intellects, persons with great imagination and talent, people with the sort of discipline, patience and persistence required to turn creative visions into practical plans and procedures. One of the chief characteristics of CPB Boards has been their contentiousness. The Corporation and public broadcasting deserve much better.

Many who have followed the activities of CPB Board members and top managements most closely over the years are potential grantees, observing their goings-on like those who cheer the Emperor’s new clothes.

The reasons for CPB’s present diminished life, and why it now commands so little attention or respect (except, grudgingly, from people who want its money, or who want Congress to withhold its money) is not far to find. CPB is not altogether unique among similar, particularly “cultural,” agencies in Washington whose boards are appointed by whatever Administration is in power.

The organizations have similar histories: A law will be passed establishing a new government or quasi-government agency. It is heralded by Congress and the Administration. Much attention is paid — particularly to the selection of its first, second, and sometimes third, board of directors. Soon, however, the bloom is off the rose; the public loses track, loses interest, the organization experiences both success and difficulties. Its fortunes (i.e., budgets) rise and fall in response to contemporary politics. Appointments to fill board vacancies languish, confirmation of appointees is delayed for months or years. In short, it takes its place among Washington’s long list of “expenditures.” With the halcyon days now well behind them, many of the original staff — the start-up people — drift away.

I joined the original staff of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and stayed for three splendid years. Here is a (very short) list of the board members I can recall taking an active part in the Endowment’s formative days: Roger Stevens (its chairman), Leonard Bernstein, John Steinbeck, Gregory Peck, Duke Ellington, Isaac Stern, Agnes De Mille, Charles Eames, Richard Diebenkorn, George Stevens Sr., Helen Hayes, Maya Angelou, Minoru Yamasaki, Ralph Ellison.

Just “names”? Yes, names of persons who were intelligent and thoughtful policy-makers.

CPB has not been without impressive leaders: James Killian, president of MIT, and Sharon Rockefeller, now president of WETA, come to mind immediately. As time rolls on, many dignified (but less frequently distinguished) hard-working citizens sacrifice time and money to serve on boards of NEA, NEH and CPB. But the dreary fact of the matter is that sooner or later the Administration in office finds itself scraping the bottom of the patronage barrel for appointees to supervise organizations that no longer enjoy an unblemished luster nor hold their original promise of success. When the viability of these organizations is challenged, few of their board members possess sufficient national stature or authority to fend off political attacks. The defense is usually turned over to political liaison professionals.

Since the board selects CPB’s presidents, those selections often mirror the board’s exceptionally modest capacities. Weak boards usually produce inept, unimaginative and sycophantic staffs. Although here, understandably prejudiced as I am, I believe most people in public broadcasting would agree that the skill of CPB’s employees below top management has far surpassed the mediocrity of its boards.

Most of these staff members have been dedicated and have labored with very little encouragement or support from their presidents. (In the 27 years I worked for CPB, no one at a more senior level, certainly not a president nor a board member, ever came to my office or summoned me to say, “Nice going. You’re doing a good job.” Not once. I suspect my experience is not unique.) My lengthening life has taught me that people who feel reasonably secure about their own capacities can, and do, offer meaningful encouragement to others. This was not characteristic of CPB’s operational manner. Indeed, more than a few CPB Board members and presidents were, in my observation, unpredictable, petulant and vindictive, preoccupied far more by style than substance.

Some of CPB’s presidents seem to have merely stopped by on their way to somewhere else, with political and other agendas that have had little relevance to the development of public broadcasting nationally. Charitably speaking, there have been few convincing demonstrations of conviction or professional commitment to what public broadcasting is about; some bursts of efficiency but little leadership.

Few presidents of the Corporation have had the patience and understanding to analyze the reasons behind public broadcasting’s chronic problems. John Macy, an excellent executive who came to CPB from managing the government’s enormous and complex Civil Service Commission, could never understand why his directives to public broadcasting, in his words, “didn’t stick.”

“This is no system!” has been the common complaint among a string of CPB presidents, most of whom have tried and failed to shape it into one they could recognize and feel comfortable with. And why not? Most have had little experience with it. To many CPB-watchers it no longer seems odd for a new president to brag that he knows little or nothing about broadcasting. The lesson here seems to be the less you know the better you will perform, a bit of childishness that stretches the credulity of the most ingenuous. One such president-elect was introduced to the CPB staff by a proud board chairman who said that the new man’s chief attribute was that in his previous position he had handled much more money than CPB’s current budget. (The problem is not that such pronouncements are so patently absurd, but rather that neither CPB’s board members nor its presidents appear to recognize them as such). For many years thereafter, one extremely capable CPB vice president made it a point to be out of town on some self-imposed assignment whenever the president (a man whose obsequiousness to the board was compounded by a profound distaste for new ideas) was in residence. The scene is funny, of course, but the effect on staff work in the end is very damaging to public broadcasting.

Lacking the experience and talent to understand, to say nothing of how to sort out, public broadcasting’s factional in-fighting, some CPB leaders have grown hostile, thus playing into the hands of the very people they have grown to despise. Or they have turned their animosity and suspicions on the Washington staff. Most CPB presidents have chosen to run what is essentially a mom-and-pop organization — certainly in Washington terms — s if it were as large and complex as IBM. Such pretentious nonsense with its ludicrous formality, its “enforcers” and strict separations of staff responsibilities is a huge bureaucratic time-waster in such a small organization, greatly limiting employees’ effectiveness and the staff’s potential, to say nothing of lowering morale. Pushing fired employees out the door on the day they are dismissed, locking their offices behind them, imposing “gag rules” on persons who elect to take advantage of separation packages are unattractive and unnecessary procedures that appear to have more to do with power enthrallment than efficiency — to say nothing of civility. Is it possible that the Corporation’s leadership has confused the ubiquitous CPB national TV logo with “importance”?

If CPB’s detractors use what I have written here to further denigrate the organization they will have missed my point (i.e., improving the Corporation) entirely. The CPB difficulties I have outlined are not cited out of personal disaffection. On the contrary, I would agree with those who told me for many years that I occupied the best position in public broadcasting. I have purposefully presented this critique in largely general terms, knowing the hazards of this approach; among them, inviting generalized responses that paint CPB’s history in precisely opposite colors. I have done so because I am temperamentally unsuited to “naming names,” understanding that what I have described was not, and is not, a conspiracy.

Some would say that it is possible to charge any organization with the failures I have described. If that is so, it is also irrelevant. CPB is at the center of an enterprise that has become an immensely important element in our national life. (Don’t take my word for it; ask those who recently thought it would be easy to “zero it out”). Public broadcasting and the American public deserve much better supervision of CPB than can be achieved through pure political patronage.

I do not believe CPB should be put out of business. To do so would only guarantee that it will be recreated in another, and probably less productive, form. What needs to go is the present system of appointing its board members. In its place, install a procedure that would discourage political patronage (nothing could completely eliminate it) and greatly improve the chances that the Corporation is run by people with ample achievement, tested expertise and a genuine, convincing commitment to pubic broadcasting.

Amend the law so that persons in positions such as directors of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Library of Congress, the chairman of the FCC, Arts and Humanities Council and National Science Foundation would form a council to make nominations to the President to fill CPB board vacancies; give the President three choices for each board position, his final selection to be confirmed by the Senate. Such an amendment might usefully include language discouraging delay in presidential nominations and congressional confirmations, circumstances that now seriously cripple the Corporation.

Will this guarantee an entirely new life for CPB and public broadcasting? Of course not. Would it be a distinct improvement over the present appointment process? Without any doubt. Would it affect Democrats and Republicans alike? Yes. Is it doable? Yes, and now is the time.

The ancient problems associated with political patronage are not beyond the mind of man to solve. Persons have dealt with it successfully, even in public broadcasting. With the objective of discouraging patronage, the Kentucky legislature several years ago adopted a nomination procedure for the board that oversees Kentucky ETV.

One last word. Money is invariably cited as public broadcasting’s chief bête noir. I firmly believe that money will never be available to CPB in sufficient amounts unless and until the Corporation’s board selection process is changed. All the money in the world will not invest the present board (or its successors if they are appointed through the present process) with the imagination, intelligence, creativity and practicality that is required to provide leadership for an intensely divisive but critically important aspect of our cultural lives. We’ve tried the present process for nearly 30 years. Clearly, it doesn’t work. Let’s change it. Now.


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