CPB PRESIDENT RESIGNS IN DISPUTE OVER POLICY
Martin Rubenstein, president of the Washington-based Corporation for Public Broadcasting, resigned unexpectedly late Thursday in a dispute with the board of directors of the troubled agency that distributes federal funds to non-commercial radio and TV stations.
At a stormy Friday meeting, the seven members of the board selected a new chairman and vice chairman (positions that had been open since spring), voted to proceed with a controversial “content analysis” of the ideological slant of public-TV programs and heard Sonia Landau, its former chairman, say she has asked the White House to withdraw her nomination for a new five-year term on the board.
The CPB board also named the corporation’s finance officer to the post of acting president and filled the agency’s general counsel’s post that had been vacant for more than a year.
Rubenstein, 51, took the top CPB salaried job in January, stepping into an agency that had been in disarray for months and answering to a board of directors often accused of interfering politically with the editorial independence of public broadcasting.
“This is a sad day for public broadcasting,” said Bruce Christiansen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service, which receives CPB grants for programming and operations. “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Rubenstein won’t be there to continue the work he’s been doing for us.”
Authorized by a 1967 act of Congress, CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation set up to develop non-commercial radio and TV services. The CPB’s mandate includes provisions to protect public broadcasting from government control and to ensure that the shows it funds are balanced.
But indications from public broadcasting sources were that Rubenstein left because political turmoil has continued to plague the corporation.
According to public broadcasting officials, Rubenstein resigned because he believes that controversial former chairman Landau has continued trying to influence CPB policy-making eight months after her term as chairman expired and the U.S. Senate refused to confirm her reappointment.
Reached at his home in Washington Friday, Rubenstein refused to discuss the resignation. “My only statement,” he said, “is ‘no comment.’ ”
Eight months before Rubenstein’s appointment, the corporation’s former president, Ed Pfister, resigned, charging that Landau and the board of directors had overpoliticized the agency. The board has languished since March without its full complement of 10 members.
Rubenstein’s resignation came just weeks after CPB, which will spend $200 million in federal money on public broadcasting this year, moved ahead with a controversial proposal to scrutinize whether news and public affairs programs shown on public TV are objective.
The board voted Friday to go ahead with the study that the Public Broadcasting Service has said will have a chilling effect on PBS shows.
In September, members of the communications subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation refused to approve Landau’s reappointment to the CPB board because, said chairman Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and vice chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.), White House nominees had made the board “needlessly political and partisan.”
The Senate panel also refused to pass on nominee Sheila Tate, a public relations executive who was press secretary to First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Before Congress adjourned, it approved the reappointment of board member Kenneth Towery and the new appointment of Daniel Brenner, a former aide to FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler, now a law professor at UCLA. Both are Democrats.
Landau, a New York Republican and wife of New York Times television critic John Corry, has continued to attend board meetings since her term expired in March. She said at the end of Friday’s meeting that she had withdrawn her name from consideration for a new term on the board.
A spokeswoman for CPB said she had no knowledge that Landau continued to exert influence over board members but acknowledged “that’s what people are saying.” The spokeswoman, Eleanor Miller, said Landau has “not acted in any official capacity” since spring.
Also at Friday’s meeting, the board selected New York oil executive William Lee Hanley Jr. as its new chairman and Texas communications consultant Howard D. Gutin vice chairman.
Earlier in the day, board member Richard Brookhiser told reporters gathered at the corporation’s offices in Washington that Rubenstein resigned during a “most solemn and secret” seven-hour executive board session that lasted until almost midnight Thursday.
Brookhiser declined to explain Rubenstein’s leaving, except to say that it resulted from a disagreement “over policy.”
Named to temporarily replace Rubenstein was CPB Finance Vice President Donald E. Ludwig, whose appointment resulted in a protest by board member and former chairman Sharon Percy Rockefeller.
“I don’t think that Mr. Ludwig is qualified by background in broadcasting or public broadcasting or in temperament to be acting president of this corporation,” Rockefeller was quoted in wire-service reports as saying in a stormy 2 1/2-hour morning session Friday.
“I think he is,” Brookhiser replied.
The vote on Ludwig’s appointment was 5-2. The board also named Arthur Pankopf vice president, general counsel and secretary. He has been CPB director of legislative affairs.
Rubenstein joined CPB after a career that included 17 years with ABC--where he was vice president and general manager of ABC News and planned coverage of special events and negotiated agreements with Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters. He joined the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1978 and became president and chief executive officer of the radio network until 1984. He then worked as a communications consultant until he was selected for the CPB post.
One of the few public broadcasting officials with an extensive background in commercial broadcasting, Rubenstein was widely credited with improving internal business operations of the public system.
Douglas Bennet, president of National Public Radio, told a reporter, “I’m dumbfounded” by the resignation. He said he had been impressed with Rubenstein’s efforts to streamline the corporation’s contracting procedures, which have been the source of complaints from program producers.
Observers said that with his background in commercial broadcasting, Rubenstein was in a unique position to strengthen the business side of public broadcasting.
Rubenstein had said in a recent interview with The Times that he had been getting his feet wet in the public world--only lately visiting stations and planning to develop over the next year a better feel for the intracies of the system.
“I don’t think I’m going to be bored,” he had said.
Times staff writer Penny Pagano in Washington contributed to this story.