Congress doesn’t work that way, said Wilbur Mills, the formidable chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in the late 1960s. Bill Moyers, then a young aide to President Johnson, recalled the upshot of the Public Broadcasting Act: Congress created CPB but left it without a dedicated revenue source, destined to lobby unceasingly for annual appropriations. This account is excerpted from Moyers’ speech to the PBS Showcase Conference in May 2006. (The full text of the speech is also on this site.)
… When he signed it, the President said that the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 “announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than ‘a chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too….
The same week former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson resigned from the CPB Board, public TV stations received a low-key announcement that the Wall Street Journal would soon end production of the conservative news analysis series he aggressively championed. Journal Editorial Report, which Tomlinson saw as an antidote to Bill Moyers’ provocative liberal commentaries on Now, will wrap its final PBS program Dec. 2. The controversy over how it came to PBS — especially as details of the process were revealed last week — demonstrated that when politics enters pubTV editorial decisions, none of the players emerges unscathed. Producers for Dow Jones Television, an affiliate of the Journal, initially didn’t explain why they canned the show, but in an unsigned op-ed Nov.
Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz found fault with much of former Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s balance crusade, but his report did validate the creation of CPB’s ombudsmen, the corporation’s stated tool for dealing with audience concerns about program balance and objectivity. While Konz criticized the unilateral manner in which Tomlinson selected veteran journalists Ken Bode and William Schulz, he concluded that “by expanding the public’s ability to have issues of objectivity and balance addressed,” the addition of ombudsmen was “consistent with” CPB’s responsibilities (separate story). “The legislative statute requires that public broadcasting be objective and balanced,” Chair Cheryl Halpern told reporters in September. “The ombudsmen were put in place to [help] CPB function within the constraints of the legislation.” But more than six months after CPB engaged Bode and Schulz to assess program balance and objectivity and handle complaints, they have seldom written on these issues in general terms and not once have they responded to audience concerns about the balance and objectivity of specific programs.
When CPB set the ombudsmen to work, Tomlinson told Current they would review news content, but many of their reports have focused on cultural documentaries that aren’t particularly journalistic, such as No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Richard Rodgers: The Sweetest of Sounds, and The Appalachians. CPB posts their reports on CPB.org [URL updated].
The Idaho Legislature is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s next cinema verite documentary. Starting with his controversial film Titicut Follies in 1967, Wiseman has filmed the day-to-day workings of American places and institutions — public housing developments, high schools and an old Maine seaport town, among other subjects. His last PBS broadcast, Domestic Violence, was filmed in a shelter for abused women and children, called the Spring, in Tampa, Fla. Wiseman, who doesn’t discuss his film projects until they’re near completion, declined Current’s request for an interview. But he told Idaho statehouse reporter Betsy Russell that he chose the Idaho Legislature because he wanted to film an American institution in the West.