In her strongest criticism yet of CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, PBS President-CEO Pat Mitchell Tuesday told a Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles that she found it “very troubling” and distracting when she learned that he had used public funds “to do secret reports” surveying PBS programs like Bill Moyers.
In fact, Mitchell said if Tomlinson had worked for her, she would have asked for an outside investigation (or two) the way Congress has done. “If you take public money, you have to be absolutely accountable for every dime of it.”
The inspector general’s report about the survey of PBS programming and the use of taxpayer dollars “are obviously big issues and they are not going to go away,” she says.
Mitchell asserted that CPB is “supposed to be a heat shield” between Congressional funding “and any content that is produced for PBS or local stations.” CPB and PBS have a joint committee that decides how the money gets spent.
“Clearly there are questions that rightly (ask) about whether the heat shield is in place,” she says. “And that is why the inspector general has been ordered to look at how this chairman has used public funds.”
Responding to Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) assertion in a hearing on noncom funding this week that PBS needs to restore balance, Mitchell cited statutes and the organization’s editorial standards, which require balance over the entire schedule.
Mitchell declared that it is impossible for any broadcaster to achieve political balance. “We always act as if there are just two sides to every issue and we know that’s not true. There are many sides to each issue” and balance can not be achieved with a “half-hour here and a half-hour there.”
So PBS’ objective, she said, is not “political equivalency” but “transparency,” so that producers fully explain how they come to a conclusion. Its range of programming covers everything from liberal to conservative. PBS needs to clearly label the programming and has the responsibility of balancing controversial points of view on other programs, she said.
Mitchell drew laughs from reporters and critics when she said she could have provided Tomlinson with a complete list of all of Moyers’ guests “for free.”
Also, she faulted Tomlinson for not picking up the phone to speak to her. “He could have called me and said, ‘I’ve got some concerns. Here’s what they are.’”
“There were other ways to do this that are more constructive and I’d imagine that if you asked him that today he might agree,” said Mitchell, who previously announced she will leave PBS in June 2006.
She expressed hope a replacement will be named in the next two to three months—rather than the nine months it took to hire her—and noted she intends to “stay engaged in the institution in some way.”
Saying she is passionate about having a “strong, well-resourced public broadcast service in this country now more than ever,” Mitchell said she expects local stations to take up the fight when she leaves.
“I think you’ll find coming out of this that the stations are asking for some reforms at CPB, and you’ll see more conversation about this going forward. Maybe there is some reform that is needed. There has been a very united front among the national (public broadcasting) organizations.”
Throughout the remainder of her term, Mitchell said she has no intention of stopping controversial programming.
“We have a lot of very strong Frontlines coming out in the next year or so. Look at the lineup in our POV series this summer. It has been very strong and very controversial. In fact, I am currently in the middle of several letter writing campaigns having to do with POVs. So if he [tomlinson] meant to keep us out of controversy, it clearly hasn’t worked.
But Mitchell said that, from an internal standpoint, she thinks PBS could do “a better job of getting the message out” that most of its programming is not controversial. With 800 hours of children’s programming and more than 200 of history- or science-related fare, she emphasized that, last year, less than 30 hours out of 3,000 stirred debate. “So there does seem to be an over focus on just one part of what we do,’” she said..
Rejecting suggestions from some conservatives that PBS chuck a few shows to end the controversy, she stated flatly, “We’re not going to do that. Because it is very much in our mission to improve citizenship in this country, to inform citizens about issues that matter. You can’t do that if you don’t take on the tough ones. So we’re going to keep doing that.”