Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Perhaps Patricia E. Mitchell sees the light at the end of the tunnel. The Public Broadcasting Service’s longtime president and chief executive officer came to the National Press Club yesterday to begin what has been referred to around PBS’ Alexandria headquarters as her “relevancy tour.”

Ms. Mitchell has run PBS for five years. In February, she announced plans to step down from the job — often called the most thankless in broadcasting — when her contract ends in June 2006.

She has said she plans to spend the rest of her tenure talking up PBS, which has come under fire — again — for accusations of liberal bias in its public-affairs programming.

Her speech, entitled “PBS: More Essential than Ever,” was touted in a press release as an opportunity to “lay out a vision for the future of PBS and how it will continue to play a crucial role in the nation’s civic and cultural life.”

Ms. Mitchell called PBS “a public square … where voices not heard in the mainstream media can be heard freely.” She cited hosts from opposite sides of the political spectrum — Bill Moyers, a liberal, and Paul Gigot, a conservative — as two examples.

She said PBS — an association of about 350 public-TV stations that gets roughly 15 percent of its budget from the federal government — fills a role no other channel does, noting the nine hours of educational children’s programming it airs daily.

She referred to a Roper Public Affairs & Media poll that ranked PBS second only to the military for delivering “excellent tax-dollar value.”

But if the reporters who came to cover the speech were hoping to hear Ms. Mitchell attack PBS’ critics, they walked away disappointed.

Ms. Mitchell wouldn’t dish on Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the conservative chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), who has said there are too many commentators like Mr. Moyers and not enough like Mr. Gigot on PBS.

The CPB is the congressionally chartered organization that channels federal funding to PBS, National Public Radio and other public broadcasters.

But the day wasn’t a total loss for reporters seeking a little juice from the famously reserved Ms. Mitchell.

She took a swipe at the notion that PBS isn’t needed because television has cable networks that target many of the same viewers PBS does.

Ms. Mitchell pointed out that A&E this week is airing something called “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” while the Learning Channel is showing “SUV from Hell” and the History Channel is running “History Hogs” — a look at history enthusiasts who are following General Custer’s trail on their motorcycles.

She also got in a dig at Fox News Channel’s oft-quoted mantra, saying the nation needs “one media institution where … fair and balanced is not a slogan, but a way of life.”

The barbs were unusual coming from an executive whose job requires diplomacy.

But with about a year left to go in her term, perhaps Ms. Mitchell sees the light at the end of the tunnel — and maybe it doesn’t look like the train coming from the other side.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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