Viewers Trust PBS, and They Should


PBS President Pat Mitchell spoke to the National Press Club last week. In this excerpt, she addresses the allegations of a public-broadcasting “liberal bias.”

Leading PBS at any time comes with bragging rights to be sure. But it also comes with the extra scrutiny applied to all organizations that have public in their name and that use public funds, particularly something called public media. Public media. Public trust. They are as interlinked as free press and democracy, as Thomas Jefferson so famously observed.

We have that trust. For the second year in a row, Americans have named PBS as their most-trusted national institution.

Trust, like reputation, is hard to earn and can be lost in a moment of misjudgment or misrepresentation. Trust is the currency on which we build our future, and we are vigilant about protecting it, preserving it, defending it.

And [we do all this] with a deep and abiding commitment to pursue the truth without regard for the consequences. This can cost us friends.

From time to time, it even leads some people to question our motives, to suggest an agenda.

I want to respond directly to any suggestion from any source that PBS has an agenda, belongs to any one political party or point of view, or can be defined through one program or one person, or viewed from one political perspective.

Programs in the public interest, dealing with the issues of our time, come in different formats with different voices, and altogether, these programs make up less than 30% of the total number of hours of programming distributed by PBS.

It’s an important 30% but doesn’t tell the whole story. Neither does the national schedule alone tell the whole story of the spectrum of public television’s commitment to news and information.

At the national level, from PBS, our programs about issues to inform and engage citizens include the respected voices of Gwen Ifill, Paul Gigot, David Brancaccio, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and, returning to PBS this summer, Bill Moyers.

On local public-television stations, equally diverse and respected local voices … illuminate in thoughtful discourse the issues that matter there. Together, we are the nation’s public square.

Because of the depth and scope of these programs across a schedule, it is clear that PBS does not belong to any single constituency, no one political party or activist group or foundation, or [serve] any agenda.

Our editorial standards ensure this, and public-opinion polls verify it. PBS commissions audience surveys every year, and every year, they confirm exactly what the public-opinion survey commissioned by CPB (whose results were finally made public) confirms: that an overwhelming majority of Americans from all political affiliations perceive PBS to be without liberal bias.

Conservative viewpoints welcome. Liberal viewpoints welcome and everything in between. We don’t belong to a blue or red or purple constituency.

For 35 years, political pressures have been directed at PBS. President Nixon tried to cut off funds for public-affairs programs after the Watergate hearings were broadcast on PBS. During the Carter administration, there were attempts to suppress a Frontline program on the execution of a Saudi princess. During the Clinton years, other Frontlines and a Moyers investigation into money and politics riled the Democrats.

Over three decades of a largely constructive, collaborative relationship between CPB and PBS, there have been differences of opinion about PBS programming.

And for as many years, PBS has maintained a steadfast resolve to never give in to any pressures, and that resolve is as rock solid today as ever. We cannot afford, quite literally, to engage in destructive allegations based on personal perceptions clearly not shared by the growing numbers of Americans listening to NPR and watching PBS.