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Noncoms Need To Speak Up, Says CPB CEO

In an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series, Patricia Harrison, CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,  praised public broadcasting but said it has done a "terrible job" of telling its "amazing" story. She also said she was very concerned about the indecency crackdown, and that CPB is committed to balanced and objective broadcasting, but not interested in pigeonholing people or ideas in 'blue state' or 'red state' boxes.

Why invest--about $1.49 per taxpayer--for noncommercial broadcasting in a world of 500-plus channels, she asked. Because, she continued, "with the exception of C-SPAN, it's almost 500 channels more of nothing."

By contrast, she says, noncommercial broadcasters are community media organizations that treat the viewers like citizens and get involved in their communities, though she said they have done a "terrible job" of spreading the word about those good works.

She praised Sesame Street internationally, saying: "These puppets are basically talking to children about tolerance and a message that gets through as they are teaching them their letters and to read, but one hopes that the young person watching, and their parents, start thinking a little bit about where are we going.  It's not this 'kumbaya' approach. It's basic survival. How are we going to thrive, how will our kids thrive, if our world is falling apart."

"Everyone has that responsibility where they are to look at our own chidren and you are either making a difference, or you are sitting on that couch, popping a beer, " Harrison said.

But she said she is not suggesting that Sesame Street is, or should be, a tool of government diplomacy.

Some Republicans regularly argue CPB should be de-funded. Harrison, former co-chair of the Republican Party, says her current job is not political and takes her noncommerical mission very seriously.

Harrison says part of the reason public broadcasting has not done a good job of consistently making its case is that its message is tied to funding-cycle threats. "We take the 'sleeping giant wakes up' approach, then go to the Hill with Big Bird."

Instead, she says, "we have to be more consistent throughout the year and talk to members of Congress so that they know, beyond the broadcasts, how public broadcasting is strengthening civic society."

"We are putting things in boxes, red state, blue state, right or left. It's a big country out there. We don't fit neatly into boxes."

Asked about the politics that has swirled around CPB--former Chairman Ken Tomlinson exited amid criticisms of politicizing his post and an Inspector General report found problems--Harrison conceded that: "Every time they write about me, it is as though I sprung full-blown from the head of the Republican party."

She points out that she ran a business for 20 years, founded a nonprofit organization, and was an author. Her mission, she says, is to strenghthen public broadcasting.

Harrison said stations are very concerned over indecency because the fines could "put them out of business." No one knows what the guidelines are, she says. "We're very concerned."  Harrison defended PBS documentaries, which have come under some fire for language: "Basically, as far as I can tell, they are people expressing themselves in their vernacular, in a particular setting and is something that is part and parcel of the show."

Asked whether she looks for political balance in programming, she called it "the third rail," but said seeking balance was part of CPB's congressional mandate and the mandate from the Inspector General.

"You need an objective look," she says, citing the CPB ombudsman as one of those looks. But she said the board is seeking different ways to fulfill the mandate of balance and objectivity. She said that could be endowing a chair at a university to take a "long look" at programming.

Harrison said the twin missions of CPB are diverse programing and the technology to deliver it. Of the latter, and particularly the need for funding for the digital transition, she said: "you can no longer broadcast to an audience where you last saw them."