CPB’s controversial moves prompt theories in press, calls for reform

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From a string of news sensations over the past month journalists and progressive activists have discerned the picture of a CPB greatly in need of reform.

A May 2 front-page story in the New York Times charged that CPB Chair Ken Tomlinson conducted his own outside review of Now with Bill Moyers, worked to kill a legislative proposal last year that would have required more radio and TV vets on the CPB Board and has made clear that a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Asst. Secretary of State Patricia Harrison, is his preferred choice for the vacant CPB presidency. The report has broadened the controversy, inspiring other articles and opinion pieces.

But even before the Times story, Common Cause President Chellie Pengree urged CPB Board members to take the lead in reforming their board so that “individuals without partisan leanings” can lead the federally funded agency.

The liberal group joined Free Press, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America in calling for a series of town meetings to set a new agenda for PBS as it moves into the digital era. “If the structure of public broadcasting is to be reformed in a positive direction, it must be driven from the bottom up, not the top down,” the groups said in a four-page report. Free Press, a media reform group founded by author and professor Robert McChesney, posted the report on its website.

PBS responded that President Pat Mitchell already had announced plans for a series of meetings to “conduct a national dialogue with public broadcasting’s many stakeholders.”

Speculation by anonymous sources and writers as well as activists escalated in recent weeks, with the Washington Post quoting an unidentified senior FCC official who said recent CPB moves are “almost like a right-wing coup.” In a review of Frontline‘s “Death of a Princess,” New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote, “Pressure from Christian fundamentalists and conservatives has all but emasculated PBS.”

The talk of a coup is “nonsense,” says Ken Ferree, acting president at CPB. Though he would like to be hired for the top job there, he says he came to CPB with every intention of being second-in-command to Kathleen Cox, who was out of work two weeks later. (Ferree told Current he was “misportrayed” in a New York Times Magazine interview that suggested he didn’t watch much PBS or listen to NPR.)

Tomlinson admits “the nature of some of the publicity certainly bothers me,” but he remains hopeful that the public and system can see past what he calls “politically inspired, manufactured concerns.”

“My job is to demonstrate to the public why public broadcasting is important, why balance is important,” he says. “We have a great tradition in American journalism and we have to have leadership that can sell that proud record.”

The CPB Board hopes to name a new president in June, a decision sure to be dissected by the media and interest groups. But some close to the matter remain philosophical.

“It’s possible to read too much into these changes,” says board member Ernest Wilson. “I really do have faith that the American people will continue to focus on the big picture.”

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