- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

The keynote speaker at the Public Broadcasting Service’s annual “Showcase” meeting last month praised public television executives Paula Kerger, Patricia Harrison and John Lawson for their “moxie” and lack of naivete in face of public TV’s most pressing problem.

The speaker’s name was Bill Moyers, bete noire of liberal media bias watchdogs everywhere. And the problem, said Mr. Moyers, who retired from his weekly PBS newsmagazine “Now” in December 2004, was the vulnerability of public TV finances in an environment where the “crutch” of federal subsidies has come perversely to depend on bland, inoffensive programming.

Public TV insiders of a conservative bent had thought they were on their way to compensating for the likes of Mr. Moyers — that is, bringing ideological balance to public broadcasting — while simultaneously making its programming more relevant in a high-technology marketplace of proliferating options.

There was a Republican in the White House, and the party held majorities in both houses of Congress as well as on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the private, nonprofit agency that feeds about $440 million in taxpayer dollars to public TV and radio stations). It seemed tantalizingly possible that, in the same way the liberal media establishment’s dominance of commercial broadcasting had eroded, conservatives might finally gain a permanent seat at the table of public broadcasting.

Key industry leaders, including Ms. Harrison, CPB’s president and chief executive officer, insist that vision is still moving forward — despite a bruising ideological grudge match that led to the resignation in November 2005 of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.

The former CPB chairman had spearheaded an initiative, including the appointment of two in-house ombudsmen, to monitor and perhaps correct for liberal-leaning bias in public television and radio.

“The mission of public broadcasting continues,” says CPB spokesman Michael Levy. “Pat Harrison has led a dramatic turnaround in the way CPB does business.”

Fallout from Mr. Tomlinson’s ouster has included intense scrutiny from congressional Democrats as well as an internal CPB investigation that concluded that while Mr. Tomlinson had broken no laws, he had used “political tests” to recruit influential staffers such as — ironically enough — Ms. Harrison.

One collateral casualty of Mr. Tomlinson’s fall may have been the drive for greater ideological inclusion in public television programming.

Michael Pack, who pushed for more ideologically diverse programming as CPB’s top television executive, resigned from the corporation last February. Some insiders, including Mr. Lawson, public broadcasting’s chief lobbyist, attributed his departure to the CPB leadership’s effort to mollify liberal critics.

(Mr. Pack stresses that he joined the corporation before Mr. Tomlinson’s chairmanship and was never implicated in its internal investigation.)

One source familiar with CPB’s political turmoil says the new policy of fairness to conservatives was “petrified in its fledgling state.”

“America at a Crossroads” escaped petrification. The $20 million documentary series will mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and examine the nation’s global and domestic challenges since then.

In 2003, then-President Robert Coonrod began the process of cultural change at CPB. He tapped Mr. Pack, a television producer, to head the corporation’s television program development unit. Mr. Pack conceived the “Crossroads” project and brought in James Denton, the former executive director of the democracy promotion organization Freedom House, as an outside consultant. (CPB cut ties with Mr. Denton in December 2005.)

Mr. Coonrod was adamant that CPB cease business as usual. He wanted, as he puts it, to “demonstrate the relevance of public television in a post-9/11 world.” This meant soliciting from filmmakers across the ideological spectrum — which, according to Mr. Denton, sparked an outcry in the public TV community.

“It’s fair to say this notion caused more than a bit of discomfort,” he says.

The “Crossroads” series garnered 440 applications — a CPB record, says Mr. Pack, who adds that the process of winnowing down the applicants went through “many layers of review,” including that of a bipartisan advisory panel of public policy experts.

“It was a really well-thought-out and open process,” says a member of the advisory panel who asked not to be named. “I think the consultants deserve a lot of credit. The whole thing was handled professionally, and there certainly were enough people [on the board] who could at least nominally be considered Democrats.”

The 20 films that will eventually air on PBS stations next spring, according to Mr. Denton, are a fair mixture of conservative and liberal points of view. He says the series is “a forthright, provocative, thorough and in-depth examination of the array of post-9/11 issues.”

“America at a Crossroads” will treat, among other subjects, the so-called Bush Doctrine of preventive war, tension over civil liberties and the struggle between moderates and extremists in the Islamic world.

Among the more atypical recipients of CPB’s “Crossroads” money were historian Peter Collier and Iraq war booster Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. And filmmaker Brian Lapping was awarded a grant for a sympathetic portrait of Richard Perle, the hawkish former Bush adviser.

In addition to kindling hostility among broadcasters accustomed to what Mr. Denton calls “a cozy grant-making decision process lacking in transparency and competitiveness,” the “Crossroads” project caused consternation within CPB itself.

Critics charge that rather than go the way of Mr. Tomlinson, Ms. Harrison distanced herself from — “decapitated,” says a less generous observer — the “Crossroads” leadership.

A former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee with little relevant background in television or journalism, Ms. Harrison was under fire from liberal interest groups such as Common Cause and the Center for Digital Democracy, which were calling for her resignation.

CPB’s current leadership flatly denies any notion of an ideological purge. Mr. Levy says Mr. Denton’s contract with CPB expired at the end of 2005 and that, moreover, the consultant’s work was no longer necessary given that the “Crossroads” series is now largely in the hands of Arlington-based WETA, which is organizing the national broadcast of the series’ first eight films.

Mr. Levy adds that Mr. Pack left CPB in order to exercise a contract option that freed up a $500,000 grant to produce “Winning Modern Wars,” a film about how the U.S. military is adapting to the demands of the war on terrorism. (The money had been frozen under the terms of his three-year contract with CPB.)

“It was Michael’s decision to stay or leave,” CPB’s Mr. Levy asserts. “If he had chosen otherwise, he’d still be here.”

True — up to a point, says Mr. Pack, who adds that he asked for a six-month extension of the agreement in order to see the “Crossroads” project through. “Pat Harrison asked me to choose between staying at CPB and losing the grant, or leaving to make ‘Winning Modern Wars,’” he explains. “I had asked that the grant be extended until ‘Crossroads’ was complete, but CPB was unwilling to do that — or, indeed, to make any concessions or accommodations.”

“In the end,” Mr. Pack says, “there really was no choice.”

Whatever the employment status of Mr. Pack and Mr. Denton, both sides agree that the “Crossroads” series will make good on its original promise of balance and dynamic viewer impact.

“Pat Harrison believes in the project,” says Mr. Levy. “She has committed CPB’s resources to it at every turn.”

CPB’s acting television programming chief, John Prizer, promises the end product will please its creator. “I worked with Michael Pack,” he says. “I was there from the moment he conceived it. I was there when he presented it to CPB senior management. I see it as a continuation.”

But what will happen after “Crossroads” comes and goes?

Mr. Prizer says CPB still supports Pack-initiated efforts to link educators with public broadcasting outlets to improve the teaching of history and civics to middle-school students. A companion math-and-science program, he adds, is set to follow.

But with Mr. Coonrod, Mr. Pack and Mr. Denton gone, it is far from clear that CPB will have the institutional energy to continue a fight that already has proved exhausting.

CPB’s newfound impartiality toward the right may turn out to have been a brief flutter of reform rather than a permanent realignment — which may explain why Bill Moyers is so upbeat.

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