Patricia Harrison, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, says the CPB has sought outside help--including from the Carnegie Corp. and the deans of several journalism schools-- to "define journalistic objectivity and balance on public broadcasting."
She also says she is concerned that the FCC's crackdown on content could chill the kind of creative programming CPB is chartered to encourage.
CPB caught a lot of flack for its efforts under former CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson to monitor noncommercial programming in what Tomlinson felt was a tilt toward the political left that needed to be balanced withmore conservative programming.
Harrison arrived a year and a half ago in the midst of that dust-up. She had to face congressional hearings and an Inspector General’s (IG) report. She pointed out that since that time, the IG has praised CPB for its approach to creating more transparency in board actions . That includes going beyond recommendations.
At a Media Institute lunch in Washington on Monday, Harrison made it clear that it was not her job to define balance and reiterated the importance of the firewall between the government and PBS programmers.
"I'm not coming up with a definition," she said. "That's not my job. That is why one of the ways to go is to have this discussion [with journalism schools and others]."
She said her opinion of what is balanced and objective is worthless, saying that where "you get in trouble" is thinking of that call as an individual approach.
She said she did not know what the outcome would be, but that "sitting down and having the conversation" about whether "in the aggregate, over 40 years, are these programs balanced and objective," is a conversation worth having. She also said studies show that "public media consumers already believe noncommercial TV is nonpartisan and unbiased.
Pointing to CPB's statutorily mandated goal of balance on controversial issues, she suggested one of the gray areas was blogging. She pointed to Minnesota Public Radio which is encouraging citizen journalists. "Are they under the same requirements for fairness and balance? Do they count as journalists?"
On the issue of indecency, she said that "as one of the most trusted forms of media," it was a "shock" to the system when the FCC fined a noncommercial station $15,000 for airing the Martin Scorsese Blues documentary.
Saying it was her editorial opinion, Harrison responded that "common sense could dictate that there is a world of difference between the casual, gratuitous profanity in a run-of-the-mill sitcom as opposed to its contextual use in a documentary like The Blues."
She said her mission is to encourage and invest in creative programming. "As CEO of CPB, I am concerned these kinds of penalties may have a chilling effect on stations." She said an FCC fine could be crippling monetarily and "censorship before the fact" that could chill other programmers.
But she called FCC Chairman Kevin Martin a smart and serious person and said she was "hopeful" about resolving her concerns. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was in the audience. He is a big supporter of PBS and a blues harmonica player himself and took issue with the FCC fine on the documentary.
Harrison said that while CBP was concerned with educating the very young, it also had a challenge in middle and high schoolers. She said one of the impetuses behind a planned bush on civic education for that group was a study that showed that a majority of high school kids (45%) believed the U.S. had fought on the side of Germany against Russia in World War II.
Voting for one American Idol over another on TV does not constitute civic engagement, she said.
Asked whether she cared whether viewers got their noncommercial programming over the TV or the Internet, she said "no, I don't."
Harrison also put in a plug for funding. She is scheduled to defend CPB's budget before a House Appropriations Committee March 21.