Politicization charged at Corporation for Public Broadcasting
New York — What was originally envisioned as a ``heat shield'' to protect public broadcasting from political pressures appears to have become a heat conductor. Charges that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), created by Congress to channel tax money to public television and radio and to prevent their politicization, has itself become politicized were renewed last week, when the CPB's president, Martin Rubenstein, was allowed to ``resign'' over ``policy differences'' after serving less than one year. He had been hired last January to replace Edward J. Pfister, who quit in May, 1985, charging that the board had become ``politicized.''
The board named Donald E. Ludwig, the CPB's vice-president for finance and a Republican, as acting president despite the protest of board member Sharon Percy Rockefeller, a Democrat, who felt that Mr. Ludwig was ``not qualified....''
Mrs. Rockefeller, the wife of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia and daughter of ex-Senator Charles M. Percy (R) of Illinois, is a two-term member of the CPB board. Her current term will expire March 26, 1987. For several years she has been protesting what she sees as the politicizing of the CPB - especially since she was replaced in 1984 as board chairman by Sonia Landau, a Reagan appointee who had served as head of Women for Reagan in the 1984 campaign. Ms. Landau's reappointment was not approved by the 99th Congress, and before Mr. Reagan could decide whether or not to resubmit Landau's name to the 100th Congress, she announced last week that she was withdrawing.
Rockefeller told the Monitor: ``I see recent events at CPB, including the resignation of President Martin Rubenstein, as the latest in a chain of events. The presumed goal is to compromise the heat shield function which CPB provides, protecting the independence and integrity of programming and operations of public broadcasting from political interference and control.''
Referring to a recent CPB proposal that it inititate a ``scientific content analysis'' of PBS documentaries, Rockefeller said she sees that step as ``yet another link in the chain, when and if it is funded. I hope it will not have a chilling effect on public affairs documentaries on public television.''
Some observers believe that any content analysis under the auspices of the CPB would be designed to have a ``chilling effect.'' Observers of PBS recall the period under the Nixon administration when there was a concerted effort to influence the content of PBS documentaries, which were perceived to be anti-administration or even ``leftist.'' They fear that such a ``reign of terror'' may be in the making once more.
PBS, itself, has responded, by organizing a review of its own decisionmaking on programming in an attempt to head off a CPB incursion into program content.
The controversy over what has been called the ``anti-Western diatribe'' in ``The Africans'' series being aired on PBS this fall has fueled the demands for content analysis. It is believed by some that the proposed CPB study would inevitibly lead to direct CPB involvement in PBS documentary content, which would run counter to CPB's legislative mandate. That mandate directs the CPB to carry out its functions ``in ways that will most effectively assure the maximum freedom of public telecommunications entities and systems from interference with or control of program content....''
Landau, who has been accused most often of politicizing the CPB, tells the Monitor, ``It certainly has been politicized - by Sharon Rockefeller. CPB is not there to be a lobbyist for PBS. It is there to ask some hard, tough questions - which concern everybody because of the federal dollars involved. If it is so upsetting that we ask that PBS fulfill its obligation for balance in controversial programs, maybe it's fair to say that PBS is a billion-dollar industry, and maybe we shouldn't be involved with the federal dollar.
``Don't get me wrong. I think PBS is terrific. I don't think federal funding should be withdrawn. But, with the federal dollars there come obligations on the part of CPB to know what the money is used for.''
When Landau gave her farewell address to the CPB board on Thursday, she said, among many other things: ``One of the major reasons for CPB is ensuring that the guidelines for objectivity and balance of the Public Broadcasting Act are met. I believe that those who receive federal funds should follow the guidelines across the board. First in our contract process ... and in the objectivity and balance in programs of controversial nature. ... If we continue to let that be confused with the obligation to preserve the heat shield, we are violating the public trust. ...
``We cannot ignore such programs as `When the Mountains Tremble' [a 1985 documentary about Guatemala], `The Africans,' and `Cuba in the Shadow of Doubt' [a 1986 documentary perceived by some as too sympathetic to the Castro government]. These are not our finest hours. ... I believe that my responsibility as a board member was to represent the public.''
Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, said that the resignation of Rubenstein marked ``a sad day for the CPB, in that another chapter has been added to its long history of turmoil.'' He hailed Rubenstein for strengthening the PBS program base by establishing the Program Challenge Fund in partnership with PBS, under which new programming would be jointly funded, and his moves to solve longstanding problems in contract procedures. ``We hope,'' said Mr. Christensen, ``that the effects of the disruption can be minimized. Public broadcasting has too many urgent issues before it to be again engaged in divisive and unproductive controversy.''
With six vacancies to be filled next March on the ten-member board, it looks as though the internecine warfare will not soon abate. No more than six members may be of the same party, and the philosophical differences seem to be hardening. Conservatives who perceive documentary content to be left-leaning want to push documentary content more to the right. Their weapons: threats of content analysis and even a cut-off of all government funding. However, with PBS's strong support in Congress and its supportive nationwide constituency, that would be difficult to accomplish. Liberals believe that balance and objectivity must be judged by overall programming rather than by individual documentaries. They like the CPB/PBS relationship as it stood before Landau took over from Rockefeller.
The Landau-Rockefeller battle is perceived in some quarters as a matter of style as well as of substance. The two women are remarkably different in personality, appearance, and manner. Landau is rumored to be the choice of Pat Buchanan in the White House and a favorite of Reed Irvine of Accuracy In Media. (Mr. Irvine visited with Landau during last week's CPB meeting.) Rockefeller, on the other hand, is perceived to represent the ``old-fashioned'' liberal point of view. As her term nears its end, she makes it clear that she will speak out frankly to safeguard the kind of politically unencumbered PBS in which she believes.
If the heat shield has not actually turned into a heat conductor, it certainly shows signs of warming up considerably in the months ahead.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.