LONG-RUNNING DISPUTE AT CPB GOES PUBLIC
The thunder and lightning have subsided, but at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting these days, storm clouds linger.
For the moment an uneasy calm appears to have settled in at CPB headquarters in a downtown Washington office building several blocks from the White House, following the recent, highly publicized resignation of Edward J. Pfister, the organization’s president since September, 1981.
His departure sent ripples of anxiety throughout the public broadcasting industry, where some top radio and TV executives worry that turmoil on the CPB board will distract members from vital programming issues and will poison the decision-making process with political considerations.
At stake is how the federal funds ($150.5 million this year) that the private, nonprofit corporation receives annually are spent in direct and indirect support of the nation’s 177 public television and 277 public radio stations.
Pfister, 51, abruptly and unexpectedly quit his $81,000-a-year job May 16 after the board, meeting in San Francisco in conjunction with the annual PBS station convention, voted 6 to 4 to withdraw its support for a delegation of public broadcasters planning a trip to the Soviet Union this fall to discuss a possible exchange of TV programming. Pfister said he could not continue working amid political interference from the board.
His words brought a standing ovation from the public broadcasters in San Francisco--and an angry rebuke from CPB Board Chairman Sonia Landau.
Transcripts of the CPB meeting are hot reading in public broadcasting circles these days. Hotter still are feelings about the impact of the events in San Francisco on CPB. Interviews with the presidentially appointed board members and with public broadcasting industry officials reveal sharply differing views.
“The consequences and ramifications of what happened in San Francisco will be very harmful to CPB’s reputation and credibility for years to come,” said board member and former chairman Sharon Rockefeller, who believes the vote trampled on a fundamental role of CPB to encourage public broadcasting.
“There’s no question that the credibility of CPB has been damaged,” another board member said privately. “The meeting has resulted in great mistrust of the corporation and expectations that, around the corner, goodness knows what might happen.”
Other board members disagreed. “I think it was something blown totally out of proportion,” William Lee Hanley Jr. said. “I don’t think there’ll be a lasting impact.”
“I don’t think it’s becoming any more politicized,” board member Richard Brookhiser said. “People there are certainly not trying to tear things apart. But if there is the slightest deviation, it looks like an upheaval.”
“What you saw was more emotion in some cases than facing up to the issues,” said board member Howard D. Gutin, president of KLRU-TV in Austin and KLRN-TV in San Antonio, who, like Hanley, opposed sending CPB officials on the trip. “If there’s going to be any lasting effect, it will be in the public broadcasting community. I just have a sense that public broadcasters take themselves so seriously.”
To be sure, public broadcasters’ observations that the board “didn’t look particularly good” did not go unnoticed.
With the board’s next meeting scheduled here Friday, more eyes are certain to be focused on its actions.
Opposing viewpoints on CPB’s board are hardly new, but some members say that a sharper division on such matters as the Soviet Union trip--where there are ideological or political implications--has developed since President Reagan appointed more conservatives to the board. San Francisco, they say, acted as a lightning rod to fractionalize the board as never before into a “we/they” mentality that will result in more block voting.
“San Francisco made it tougher, in that lines seemed to be more sharply drawn in terms of camps,” one board member commented. “One would have to guess that people will tend to say, ‘How is my group going?’ rather than, ‘How do I feel’ and letting the chips fall where they may. There’s a level of suspicion that whatever the chairman says, or what somebody else says who is not in agreement, is somehow politically motivated.”
“Yes,” vice chairman Kenneth Towery said, “there is an aftermath from San Francisco. But I really think that if everybody keeps their cool, everything will work out.”
Added board member Lloyd E. Kaiser, president of Metropolitan Pittsburgh Public Broadcasting Inc., which operates WQED, one of public TV’s most prominent stations: “It’s very important for the system that the board be together and not concentrate on the problems and divisions, but on how to help public broadcasting meet greater goals.”
The board’s politically conservative majority includes Landau, who headed Women for Reagan-Bush in the last election; Gutin, Hanley, Towery, Brookhiser and Harry O’Connor, who heads Playa del Rey-based O’Connor Creative Services Inc. Gutin is an independent; the other five are Republicans. All were appointed by Reagan.
Frequently voting together on the other side are Rockefeller and Howard A. White, both Democrats; Kaiser, an independent, and Lillie Herndon, a Republican.
Some public broadcasters fear that the Reagan Administration may attempt to assert more control over the types of programming CPB approves, a thought that rekindles memories of similar efforts undertaken during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when the Administration successfully sought to curb public affairs programming it deemed too liberal and too critical.
Others sense that by appointing conservatives to the board, the Reagan Administration may affect change without any direct intervention. In 1986 Herndon’s and White’s terms expire, and Rockefeller’s term is up in 1987. If Reagan replaces them, he will have appointed an entirely new CPB board since becoming President in 1981.
“It is clear that there’s an agenda that will follow that is very compatible with the conservative ideology held by the majority of the board,” one top public broadcasting official said. But he also recalled that when Democrats were at the helm, they had their own agenda.
From his position, PBS President Bruce Christensen said that “I haven’t seen any indication that there is political manipulation from the White House--I see none of that. This is a situation where you have a difference in philosophy. It is not the same kind of politicization.”
Landau, in a lengthy interview, bristled at the suggestion that politics has entered CPB’s agenda and denied charges that the board is being politicized.
“If there’s any politicizing on the board,” she said, “the one who did it is Sharon Rockefeller (her predecessor as chairman). If you want to go back to the day I was elected (last September), she gave a statement telling me I’d better watch the heat shield, saying basically that public broadcasting was in trouble. If that isn’t a politicizing statement, I don’t know what is.”
When Rockefeller was chairman, Landau says, “Public broadcasting was made up of one person on this board--the rest of us could come in every other month, raise our hand on a vote and go back home. I think she hasn’t taken well the fact that she is no longer chairman.”
Sharply differing views have driven a deep wedge between the two women, who barely speak to each other.
Landau also said she was astounded at what happened after she introduced her resolution last month to exclude CPB from the Soviet Union trip. She said she shared a concern with several board members that this trip, as far as CPB participation was concerned, was a “junket.”
Tense relations had been building between Pfister and Landau for some time, adding to her concern about his heading the delegation to the Soviet Union.
“They are government-controlled television,” she said of the Soviets. “The people that work there aren’t exactly like the people who work in South Dakota in public broadcasting. These are very formally trained people, very bright people, and I think we should be sending our best and our brightest.”
To be sure, while Pfister’s resignation was abrupt and unexpected, many observers had felt it was only a matter of time before he would have departed. The only people left on the board who originally had hired him were Rockefeller, Herndon and White. Several board members on both sides felt that he should leave, citing a variety of reasons ranging from disagreements over issues to differences regarding management style. Some members had privately counseled him months ago to find an issue of principle and leave.
“Sonia did the one thing no one thought was possible,” said one public broadcaster, “and that was for Ed to leave in a blaze of glory.” Added a board member: “Ed couldn’t have orchestrated it more beautifully.”
Indeed, Pfister was not revered throughout the public broadcasting industry after disagreements with public TV officials over control of program funds and with public radio executives about CPB’s role in overseeing National Public Radio after its financial difficulties in 1983.
As one public TV station executive said, “Ed Pfister couldn’t have bought a standing ovation from that gang 24 hours before.”
Pfister has no regrets about his resignation. “It was not a difficult decision, and I have never looked back,” he said in an interview. “I think that for me, I made the only decision I could make.
“My hopes for public broadcasting are high,” he added. “I think it is an extraordinary institution. I hope that it never waters itself down in any way. I hope that it doesn’t politicize itself or sacrifice its independence.”
Some say Landau’s criticism of Pfister only intensified the emotion of the moment.
“You’re incredible, just incredible,” Landau told him after his farewell speech to PBS station executives in San Francisco. “You don’t even know what honesty is. . . . You don’t give a damn about this organization.”
Some news reports said that Landau call Pfister a “schmuck.” Landau insisted in the interview that she only said “schnook,” and under her breath.
Landau’s husband, New York Times television critic John Corry, is also said to have made angry comments in public. One witness said Corry grabbed Pfister in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel and uttered obscenities.
“He never touched Pfister,” Landau said of her husband.
Corry reportedly also had harsh words for KCET President William Kobin, who had disagreed with Landau at the board meeting over another programming matter. Corry, Kobin and Pfister declined to comment.
Beyond their worries about travel expenses and Pfister’s participation, Landau and other conservative colleagues in San Francisco clearly were concerned about CPB having dealings with the Soviet Union, arguing that any communications policy involving that country should be left to the U.S. Information Agency and the State Department.
In the transcript, Landau said: “I am concerned that an institution that operates on federal money (CPB) is dealing with the Soviet government, and the Soviet government runs Soviet television.”
“I have very real gut-wrenching emotional concerns about the Soviet Union,” Gutin added in an interview.
“The Bolshoi is marvelous, but is there that much of a need for the Bolshoi? We’re having difficulty getting people to tune in Shakespeare. What would happen with Tolstoy and Dostoevski?” he said. “If they ran ‘Firing Line’ with Bill Buckley, maybe we would be prepared to run something of theirs. I just don’t know if there is much of an audience. Most Soviet TV is garbage.”
Some public broadcasters and CPB board members are concerned about Landau’s disagreement with the premise that once federal dollars come to CPB, they become private money. Several CPB members feel strongly that as an independent body, CPB does not take marching orders from other government offices.
“It seems to me the reason CPB was structured was to take care of federal money and be sure that it is used properly,” Landau argued in the interview. “If we have any reason to exist, that’s what I thought it was.”
Her statement worries colleagues such as former chairman Herndon, who believe strongly that “the corporation is a private independent corporation, established to be a heat shield for public broadcasting and to ensure the autonomy of local stations and all that we do.”
Landau’s critics on the board charge that she has interjected herself into CPB’s day-to-day operations, down to recommendations that certain secretaries be fired.
Others describe her as an ambitious woman who does not easily forget those who disagree with her. “After we disagreed on one issue,” said a former board member, “she never spoke to me again.”
In her defense, her supporters on the board say she’s getting a lot of unjustified criticism, especially from those who oppose her and want to embarrass her. “People are eager to criticize her,” one colleague said. “She’s working her ass off.”
“She’s a pretty gutsy little girl, a fighter,” added another. “She’s not going to take things lying down.”
There is quiet talk, however, that come September, when Landau’s one-year chairmanship expires, her majority could falter. One possibility is that one of her supporters could change his vote, making her reelection bid a 5-5 tie. Landau would remain chairman but without a formal term, and could be replaced at any meeting.
At a closed-door meeting May 31, Landau proposed that Donald Ledwig, vice president of finance, be named interim president until a successor to Pfister could be hired. Instead, after a seven-hour meeting, a three-member management team was selected to run the organization. A committee has been appointed to pick an executive search firm to look for candidates for president and for general counsel (to replace Linda C. Dorian, who resigned May 19).
As Hanley observed, alerting people to the president’s job will not be a problem. “Obviously, the job has already advertised itself,” he said.
PLAYERS IN THE BOARD GAME
Following are the backgrounds of the members of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting:
Sonia Landau, New York City. Corporate consultant. Republican, appointed by President Reagan. Began serving in November, 1981. Served as vice chairman from September, 1982, to September, 1983, and from January to September, 1984. Elected chairman in September, 1984. Term expires in 1986.
Richard Brookhiser, New York City. Senior editor, National Review magazine. Republican, appointed by Reagan. Served since February, 1983. Term expires in 1987.
Harry O’Connor, Playa del Rey, Calif. Heads O’Connor Creative Services Inc., which produces and markets broadcast program services. Republican, appointed by Reagan. Term began in May, 1983, and expires in 1986.
Howard D. Gutin, San Antonio, Tex. President and general manager of Southwest Texas Public Broadcasting Council, inlcuding KLRN-TV in San Antonio and KLRU-TV in Austin. Independent, appointed by Reagan. Served since September, 1984. Term expires in 1989.
William Lee Hanley Jr., Greenwich, Conn. Head of Hanley Co. Inc., New York, clay products and oil exploration firm. Republican, appointed by Reagan. Board member from February to March, 1984, reappointed in September, 1984. Term expires in 1987.
Lillie Edens Herndon, Columbia, S.C. Active in state and national educational activities. Republican, appointed by President Gerald Ford. Board member since 1975, reappointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Served as chairman from September, 1978, to September, 1981. Term expires in 1986.
Lloyd Kaiser, Pittsburgh, Pa. President/general manager of Metropolitan Pittsburgh Public Broadcasting Inc., which includes WQED-TV, WQEX-TV and WQED-FM. Independent, appointed by Reagan. Served since September, 1984. Term expires in 1989.
Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Washington, D.C. Active in national and community affairs and wife of Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Appointed by Carter, term began October, 1977. Reappointed by Reagan in 1983. Served as vice chairman from September, 1980, to September, 1981, and as chairman from September, 1981, to September, 1983. Term expires in 1987.
Kenneth Towery, Austin, Tex. President of Sentinel Corp., political consulting firm. Republican, appointed by Reagan. Joined board in November, 1981. Vice chairman since September, 1984. Term expires in 1986.
Howard A. White, Chappaqua, N.Y. Executive vice president and general counsel of ITT Communications and Information Services. Democrat, appointed by Carter. Served since July, 1979. Term expires in 1986.