Et Tu, Harper’s?

Posted by Michael Getler on

One of the interesting things that I’ve observed in my several years as ombudsman here is that among organizations that devote all or a fair amount of their efforts to critically appraising the media, PBS probably gets blasted as much or more from the liberal left as from the conservative right. For media organizations that strive for independence and impartiality, that’s usually seen as a good thing, sort of a badge of honor that they play things straight.

But the criticisms usually have value. They stir things up. They produce arguments, debates and articles in other media and those are also good, although usually short-lived, things. Even if motivated by specific interests, they often contain important critiques that need to be absorbed.

For example, the media-watch organization known as FAIR, for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, which describes itself as “progressive” and which the Associated Press has described at times as a “liberal advocacy organization,” has written critically many times over many years about PBS programs, especially the nightly PBS NewsHour. Whatever its description, FAIR does serious work and I have written about it often in this space, at times agreeing with its critique and at other times disagreeing.

In the past several months, there have been three critical articles in the online Pando Daily about PBS, which I also wrote about on two of those occasions. One of those Pando pieces really hit the mark, resulting in PBS actually returning funds to a self-interested series sponsor.

Last year, TheNew Yorker wrote a lengthy article about the relationship between PBS and the conservative, politically active, billionaire industrialist David Koch, who is a major funder and member of the Board of Trustees at the flagship Boston member-station, WGBH. The New Yorker piece remains the starting point for a growing brigade of protestors calling for the removal of Koch from the board. I’ve written a couple of times about that as well.

Now along comes the October edition of 164-year-old Harper’s Magazine with a 12-page essay by freelance writer Eugenia Williamson titled, “PBS Self-Destructs…And what it means for viewers like you.” Unfortunately, I cannot post a link to the actual essay because it is only available in the magazine or to online subscribers.

The Pulled Ads Get the Attention

I have some thoughts about the article but what got far more attention than the essay was the question of whether PBS—specifically an organization called Public Media Distribution or PBSd, which PBS says is a separate entity—pulled scheduled advertisements from Harper’s in reprisal for the piece by Williamson.

In a nutshell, PBSd is a profit-making organization that handles the sales of programming on video and online/digital platforms. It is jointly owned by PBS and the WGBH Educational Foundation. The advertisements in Harper's promoted the sale of DVDs of the recently aired Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

TheNew York Post broke the story on Sept. 25, reporting that PBS had “pulled ads from the November and December issues” over the critical article that ran in the magazine’s October issue. It reported that PBS had no comment.

On Sept. 29,, the online companion to the bi-weekly printed version of the news organ for public media, picked up the Post story. PBS again declined to comment. Then FAIR, on Sept. 30, headlined an article: “PBS Uses Advertising to Retaliate Against Critical Coverage.” It didn’t ask PBS for comment.

As the story began to circulate, a small number of viewers wrote to me about the ads, not the essay. “This apparent act of retribution seems at odds with the principles of dialogue and debate that should be the foundation of a public service media organization like PBS,” wrote Brant Olson of San Rafael, Calif.

These early news stories were then followed up by a discussion of the situation on the Oct. 3 weekly “Beat the Press” program on WGBH, by a story in the online edition of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) on Oct. 6 that contained some response by PBSd and then another story in Currentthe following day with a more extensive response from PBSd.

In the aftermath of the New York Post story, I responded to those few viewers who had written with the best information I could gather from PBSd, via PBS. This wasn’t very detailed although it did contain the first suggestions of what happened and why, at least as PBSd tells it.

Then on Oct. 6, in response to further inquiries from me, Andrea Downing, co-president of Public Media Distribution (PBSd), sent the following email:

“For background for your readers, I want to note upfront that Public Media Distribution (PBSd) is a separate organization from PBS with different staff and operations.

“I think it would be helpful to review my decision-making process regarding PBSd's ads in Harper's. PBSd was slated to run an ad promoting THE ROOSEVELTS on DVD in the October issue of Harper's. In July, an advertising representative from the magazine emailed PBSd noting that there was going to be a story about PBS in that issue. The sales staffer offered PBSd the option of canceling or moving the ad to November. At that time, the PBSd marketing team agreed to the magazine's offer to move the ads to the November issue with additional free placement in the December issue.

“When the Harper’s article was published, my staff specifically called my attention to it and the ads we had planned for November and December. To make it clear, I had no issue with the essay. It was my ultimate decision, however, that the later timing did not meet PBSd's needs since THE ROOSEVELTS series was airing the week of September 14 and the DVD became available on September 16.

“It appears that our concern about timing was not communicated clearly to Harper's. At no time did PBS suggest that we remove the ads from Harper’s. Nor did Harper’s indicate that they had a problem with Public Media Distribution canceling the ads as Harper’s had originally offered to cancel or push the ads.”

My Thoughts on Those Ads

First, just a couple of factoids. PBSd did publish a full-page advertisement in Harper’s September edition for the boxed DVD set on the Roosevelts. The October edition with the critical essay about PBS, as the CJR article pointed out, was delivered to subscribers and posted online on Sept. 11. The statement above from Downing is the most extensive thus far but you have to read between the lines to discern what others tell me was a mix-up due to faulty internal communications.

There is no doubt that a Harper’s representative let PBSd know that an article about PBS was coming in the October edition and offered the option of canceling for October and moving the ad back to November, with a free-ride for December. The statement above carefully says, “At that time, the PBSd marketing team agreed.” It doesn’t say Downing agreed. Sources here say Downing was not fully aware, in July, that the marketing team had agreed to the switch to November and December and that had she been aware she would not have agreed because the timing didn’t work or make sense. Had they asked her at the time, I was told, she would have said no.

When I asked Downing why turn down the November and a free December offer from Harper’s, which seemed to me to be a pretty good deal and still close to the Burns’ series, she said: “An important part of our marketing effort is to leverage the broadcast of a program by promoting a DVD/Blu-ray release simultaneously with its airing since that is when awareness of a series or special is by far the highest. That is our strategy with many of the titles we release and it was no different for The Roosevelts the DVD and Blu-ray were released during the week of broadcast. PBS Distribution has a very limited consumer advertising budget. We actually only use paid advertising for two to three titles per year. After the broadcast, we have found that it’s more effective to work with retailers directly to target promotions to their customers.”

So that’s as much as I have found out so far about what happened within the PBS tent. I doubt if people make much of a differential between PBS and PBSd. But that is where the decisions were made, and the internal scenario that I’ve reported is certainly plausible.

Silence Is Not Golden

Yet PBS gets a black-eye for a couple of weeks from some media and among at least some viewers following this because, as CJR’s David Uberti put it: “Pulling advertisements is an age-old tactic for businesses facing media criticism to seek retribution. But in the case of PBS, which exists in part as a way to limit commercial influence on educational television, doing so just feeds into [Harper's writer] Eugenia Williamson’s thesis — that the idealistic, Great Society-era initiative often behaves more like a corporate or political organism.”

So, if the PBSd account is correct, PBS deserves the black-eye for not responding on the record more fully, more precisely, and more quickly.

Or Is It?

Ironically, the lack of a quick and clear explanation about what happened to the ads was compounded, it seems to me, by what was a quick response to the essay itself in the form of internal “talking points” for station managers should they get questions about the Harper’s essay. These, of course, were reported and posted by Current on Sept. 18, just days after the essay was published and well before the issue of the advertising surfaced in the New York Post.

The “talking points” are from Beth Hoppe, the chief programming executive at PBS. They state:

“The lengthy essay published in the October issue of Harper’s magazine is filled with many basic errors and omissions. According to an annual study, the American people named PBS and local PBS stations the most trusted public national organization 11 consecutive times. Ms. Williamson does not mention that in 2014 alone PBS programs won 12 Peabody Awards, more than any other broadcast network. PBS programming was also nominated for 43 News and Documentary Emmys this year, more than any other organization.

“Also missing is that PBS has the 6th largest primetime audience among all broadcast and cable networks through July for the current 2013-’14 season, up from #12 two seasons ago. Nielsen data also shows that the demographic breakdown of PBS’ full-day audience reflects the overall U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, education and income and that in the course of a year, nearly 90% of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station. These facts paint a much different picture of a vibrant and valued PBS enjoyed by all Americans.”

It was obvious to Current and CJR however, that these points did not point out any actual “errors” in the essay. CJR’s Uberti put it this way: “It doesn’t elaborate on any factual inaccuracies, instead focusing on the litany of awards and other public plaudits the broadcaster has received. To be sure, PBS’s reputation is solid. It earned 12 Peabody Awards for its 2013 programming alone. And polling has consistently shown it to be the most trusted name in television news. But the public broadcaster’s response to one article’s criticism has raised more questions than it answered.”

Hoppe’s “Talking Points” did come across as defensive in the hard light of publication, without any real critique of the essay. In a separate letter to Harper’s she made one specific point: the author refers to John Wilson as the top PBS programming executive when Hoppe has held that post for two years.

When I asked Hoppe about the absence of specific examples of basic errors and omissions, she repeated the point about Wilson “because I believe that a detailed piece about PBS programming should correctly identify the lead executive.”

She also said: “I also noted recent industry honors and our significant growth in audience reach because PBS is, by many measures, strong and successful, a point that I thought should have been referenced. Unfortunately, even though the essay was in development for a long period of time, PBS was not contacted until the story had already been written and turned into the editor. What accurate information that PBS was able to provide during the fact-checking stage was relegated to footnotes, and much of what we provided was not referenced, even when it spoke directly to issues discussed in the final piece. 

“As an enterprise charged with serving the entirely of the American public, we understand we are held to high standards, but I do think this essay would have been stronger and more informative for readers if it had included a more balanced look at what our system accomplishes.”

She also provided four pages of material that PBS responded to and provided to Harper’s in August. This column is already too long and I’m not going to reproduce that here.

The Essay

As for the essay by Williamson, I was left with a couple of impressions. It seems very long even for a magazine piece. It reflects lots of research and history. Much of the piece is about events and programs from 10 to 40 years ago. It appears to be billed as an “essay” for good reason. It is an opinion piece written from a liberal perspective; worth reading but clearly bemoaning what the author considers to be the failures of PBS.

“What remains today of public broadcasting is thoroughly enervated, with hardly a vestige of liberalism, purported or otherwise,” she writes. “Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics.” And in case you missed that one, she writes that PBS “caters to seniors seeking the news of the day presented in a way that doesn’t raise their blood pressure.”

The essay includes a zinger of a quote from Bill Moyers that “the realities of life for the vast majority of Americans rarely show up on public television.” And there is a similar one from a documentary filmmaker who “ran into problems” with the PBS-associated ITVS organization in 1986. She notes that PBS did ultimately air the film but that the filmmaker, B.J. Bullert, “was dismayed by the ideological log-rolling.”

She focuses on the campaign to get mega-billionaire and conservative political-activist David Koch off the Board of Trustees at WGBH. “There is an amorphous shame brought about by a national public-television network whose coverage is primarily dictated by its most well-heeled viewers,” she writes as a general point.

So, I think this is enough to give you the picture.

My Sense of It

On the one hand, nobody has written to me about the essay in Harper’s. But Williamson raises some very important issues. I hope I don’t seem defensive of PBS in the following comments, but they come from an aging, white male viewer who happens to be the ombudsman and who still watches television and doesn’t find centrist politics to be a sin.

The issue of Koch’s presence on the WGBH board is a real one. He is hugely wealthy and hugely supportive financially of conservative/libertarian causes and candidates. Stations certainly have the right to put him or other wealthy, opinionated figures on what hopefully are diverse boards. But would we hear so much about this if it were a liberal billionaire on the board? Probably, but it probably wouldn’t be in Harper’s and would come from another direction.

I’ve written about Koch a few times and don’t want to go into details here. But I’ve said two basic things, neither of which I can prove. One is that there is no evidence that he has sought to interfere in PBS programs. The other is that the sheer magnitude of his financial support can, and may, induce self-censorship on the part of station managers or producers.

As for the alleged failure to portray the realities of life for the vast majority of Americans, as the essay and the former PBS icon Bill Moyers put it, that, too, is a real issue that I agree with in part but that I felt was presented in a too one-sided fashion.

The fact is that Moyers has been, for several decades, the preeminent and most powerful presenter and commentator of those realities anywhere on television and has spent most of those years on PBS. Even though his newest program that started in 2012 is distributed by American Public Television, a majority of the 350 or so PBS-member stations still carry it.

There are also routinely hard-hitting, hot-button investigative programs on Frontline (not mentioned in the essay) and on the Independent Lens and P.O.V. series. I do agree that the public affairs programming, including the PBS NewsHour, could do more. As a news junkie, I am very glad to have the NewsHour. I think it is the best news hour on TV and always has segments that explore issues in depth that simply would not appear elsewhere on broadcast television.

But I have also written on several occasions, such as one in 2010 for example, that PBS “public affairs programming seems to operate within a rather safe comfort zone that straddles the center. Certainly that has its place, but there are huge disparities of opinion in this country about everything from the war in Afghanistan to the public option in health care and the strongest voices are not heard very often.”

Posted on Oct. 10, 2014 at 1:48 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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