The CPB Board 4: Why PBS Is Moving to the Right
I forgot to mention yesterday that in response to the criticism of Luntz’s hiring (which came, so far as I am aware, from the blogosphere exclusively – I’ve seen not one comment against it in any of the mass media organs I look at every day), PBS announced that he will not, after all, be taking up a Friday night slot on Tavis Smiley’s show to bash Democrats and sell his latest ultraconservative frames (via Avedon Carol).
The Good News about the CPB Board is that a) it has enormous overall influence but no day-to-day supervisory control, and b) its members seem to be aware – or at least to believe – that they’re behind the lines in enemy territory and have to be careful lest their cover be blown to smithereens.
As Digby’s comment shows, even otherwise smart, savvy, highly-informed liberal critics remain largely unaware of the changes on the CPB Board and the rightward drift of PBS programming that began under Clinton not long after the Republicans took control of Congress in ’94. As we reach the point – which we’re now doing – where that drift becomes more obvious and less ignorable, those critics are bound to catch on. If they then succeed in convincing the largely liberal-leaning PBS audience that its favorite news outlet has become little more than a FoxLite shill for conservative talking points, there could very well be a rather nasty backlash. The Movement Cons now dominating the Board would no doubt like to avoid that contingency.
One of the ways the Board has been able to use its power without exposing its positioning is through the use of “beards” – token appointments of people who may be sympathetic to right-wing thinking or at least have no open antipathy toward it, and who in any case don’t have enough influence to sway the decisions of the dominant neocons.
Member: DAVID PRYOR (Appointed by Bush)
David Pryor, ex-Sen from Arkansas (and father of its current Sen, Mark Pryor), is a mildly conservative Blue Dog Democrat with no particularly distinguishing characteristics. He is not and never has been by any stretch of the imagination a controversial figure. His voting record shows, if anything, a stolid avoidance of controversy. For example, he’s never taken a public stand on abortion or gun control, and his voting pattern is pretty well split down the middle – he supported requiring the EPA to continue doing environmental risk assessments but against requiring ethanol in gasoline.
Long-time Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Govt and now Dean of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Pryor’s resume is more notable for what it doesn’t include than what it does.
- He didn’t sell out to corporate interests and take a high-paying series of board memberships.
- He didn’t cash in on his govt experience and become a lobbyist after leaving office.
- He didn’t join any right-wing/left-wing think-tanks or advocacy groups.
These days, that kind of not-doing qualifies as public spiritedness.
But if he’s not a firebrand partisan, neither is he a staunch centrist. Rather, he’s a milquetoast moderate who eschews not just controversy but confrontation. He isn’t known for challenging even the dumbest and most indefensible statements of his colleagues, and it’s highly doubtful he does so on the CPB Board. There’s a spate of interviews with him on the net (this one on electoral reform when he was at Harvard will do as an example) and they are as uninspired and pedestrian as any collection of random cliches could be. I read several of them and couldn’t find a single instance of provocative commentary or original thought.
Clearly, Bush appointed Pryor to the Board so he could claim it was bi-partisan without the danger of taking the risk that an actual difference of opinion might raise its ugly little head. And that’s the essence of a token appointment.
Member: CLAUDIA PUIG (Appointed by Bush)
Bush likes to make token minority appointments, especially of Hispanic tokens, and Puig is the CPB’s. But she is not, of course, just any Hispanic. Most importantly, she’s of Cuban extraction, not Mexican or El Salvadoran. Bush believes – probably correctly – that the conservative community of exiled anti-Castro Cubans is a natural constituency for him, and Puig is a bit of a star in that community.
But that’s not all that made her an attractive candidate. While her resume is super-heavy with broadcasting credits, they’re all in the area of finance – she’s a glorified accountant.
She is chairman of the Audit and Finance Committee of the CPB. Since April 1997, Puig has been with Univision Radio (formerly Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation), where she is currently senior vice president and eastern regional manager (New York, Miami and Puerto Rico), overseeing operational, financial, sales, programming and business development strategy for Univision’s broadcast properties.
And a glorified accountant relentlessly concerned with commercial outcomes.
Under her leadership, Univision’s Miami FM stations – WAMR and WRTO – consistently rank in the top ten stations in the market, while the AM stations – WAQI-AM and WQBA-AM – rank number one and two among the AM stations. WAMR has led the market in rates, ratings and revenues for the past six years, and Univision’s four Miami stations account for more than 60 percent of the Miami Latino market with one of them leading the market in terms of top ratings, rates and revenues.
Prior to her current position, Puig was Vice President and General Manager of Spanish Broadcasting Systems where she directed all aspects of sales, marketing, promotions and business development departments at local and national levels for WCMQ AM and FM in Miami.
In other words, she’s a perfect fit. She’s Hispanic (and from the right Hispanic community), conservative, a numbers-cruncher dedicated to the bottom line, a successful commercial broadcaster, and a link to the movers-and-shakers in Miami’s Cuban exile community (who vote heavily Republican). She’s also active civically in ways that are utterly non-controversial, so MOR that the most rabid progressive couldn’t find fault with them no matter how hard they tried.
Active in community and charitable causes, Puig serves on the board of trustees of Florida International University, and on the boards of directors of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, the United Way of Miami-Dade, the American Cancer Society, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and the Orange Bowl Committee. Other civic commitments include the Community Improvement Authority, and the City of Miami’s Arts and Entertainment Council.
No ties to right-wing think-tanks or rabid lobbying groups here, just a reliable, conservative, corporate-friendly vote whenever one is needed.
Puig does have one unusual quirk: unless there’s another Claudia Puig out there, she’s USA Today‘s movie reviewer. Her reviews are usually of big Hollywood extravaganzas and – like the rest of her resume – very MOR (she liked Pirates 2, didn’t like Dupree and Me). There’s nothing flashy or intellectual about her criticism, and her writing is as pedestrian as you might expect considering her employer, but it does tend to show what passes for a whacky streak in conservative circles – she doesn’t hate Hollywood. Maybe that’s a sign of…something.
Member: ERNEST J. WILSON III (Appointed by Clinton, re-appointed by Bush)
Wilson isn’t just the Board’s token black and token Democrat, he’s the token internationalist and the token education expert, being the only one on it with training in and experience of education.
Ernest J. Wilson III has wide experience in both international affairs and information/communications issues. He has served in senior positions in the White House, the U.S. Information Agency, the private sector and in the academy. Formerly the Director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) at the University of Maryland, Dr. Wilson is a Professor of Government and Politics and Afro-American Studies and a Faculty Associate in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Senior Advisor to the Global Information Infrastructure Commission.
Wilson has been involved in international affairs for many years, combining scholarship and writing with applied programs and projects in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Before coming to the University of Maryland at College Park, Wilson directed the Center for Research on Economic Development at the University of Michigan, where he taught for ten years.
In 1993-1994 he served as director for International Programs and Resources on the National Security Council at the White House, where his responsibilities encompassed foreign assistance and international economic programs as well as the reform of U.S. international broadcasting, including Radio Free Europe, a Voice of America, and Radio Asia. He also established and directed the Policy and Planning Unit in the Office of the Director of the U.S. Information Agency. In 1994 he was asked to help create the Global Information Infrastructure Commission (GIIC), a new private sector organization of 40 CEOs and government leaders from around the world. He served as deputy director of the GIIC in 1994-1995.
Quite a resume – the kind that used to be common for CPB Board Members before Bush came along. You might be wondering why Bush re-appointed a guy like this, he’s so clearly NOT standard Bush material. I know I am.
I don’t know the answer but I can speculate as well as anyone. To begin with, it might be thought he brings a certain gravitas to the Board – after all, he’s the only one on it who knows what the hell he’s talking about. The rest are political hacks, right-wing ideologues, tokens, commercial broadcasters, or some combination of the four.
And it’s not like he could be a threat or anything. Bush has a solid majority of sycophants and fellow-travelers on the Board – 6 or 7 out of 8 – which would make Wilson a lonely voice indeed if he tried to rock the boat.
Which he hasn’t. He had a golden opportunity to go public with any concerns he might have had about the Board’s pushing PBS to the right when Tomlinson’s shenanigans got outed, but his voice is conspicuous by its absence even though Wilson has been less than shy about criticizing Bush’s foreign policy. On his blog at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, he has called the Administration “the gang” and savaged its foreign policies.
[I]t is patently obvious to all that the administration’s hapless mix of coercion and diplomacy has been a disaster. By using far too much of the former and far too little of the latter it has seriously compromised America’s national interest. Washington lacks an effective combination of hard and soft power to make smart power. Instead of a smart power policy, we have a policy of ‘stupid power’. Bush barely uses traditional or public diplomacy at all, and uses coercive power badly.
Of course, when he was re-appointed in ’04, he wasn’t nearly that vocal. He was one of the liberal foreign policy establishment who at first backed the war in Iraq, turning against it only after the rest of the population did when Iraq began spiraling into chaos and civil war. It may be that his resume looked good and Bush had no reason at the time to think Wilson wouldn’t continue to either support him or at least keep his mouth shut. I doubt he would be re-appointed today.
It should be obvious by this point that the CPB Board is now packed with right-wing Bush supporters who have ties to some of the ugliest conservative groups on record or are at least sympathetic with their goals. Virtually none of them have any documented interest in public broadcasting, education, or non-partisan news reporting. They came in with an agenda – the one Tomlinson finally put on the table last year, to make PBS “less liberal” – and they’ve been working toward that agenda for at least 6 years.
How do you make an entity “less liberal”? Well, you could force it to the middle, replacing a perceived partisanship with “objectivity”. But what if the supposedly too liberal entity is already pretty objective? Then there’s only one option: make it more conservative.
That’s clearly the road the Bush Board has chosen. They’ve successfully insinuated conservative producers, presenters, and commentators into PBS’ structure, poisoning much of its reporting, and now they’re pushing the envelope with extremists like Luntz and Melanie Morgan. A Board full of people who know nothing about education and less about journalism but who have many ties to toxic institutions like AEI and the IRI could scarcely be expected to do less.