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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: The Faces That Are On and Off PBS

Here's a follow-up to last week's mailbag with some additional viewer commentary that arrived while I was away earlier this month. It includes a striking observation and challenge from a viewer in Minnesota, and some not surprising observations from fans of Bill Moyers about his forthcoming return, once again, to public television, but not with PBS.

First, this from Lisa Williams in Farmington Hills, Minn.:

"I am sixty-five years old and I am tired of giving money to a station that simply refuses to represent any race except for the white race. Where are the African-Americans on "Create," where are the African-American master plumbers, construction workers, etc on "This Old House?" I am not talking about specials, I am talking about African Americans with shows on PBS. We are post Oprah and PBS is still representing America as though we are in 1950. There are African American plumbers, people who know how to put in furnaces, own businesses. Shame on you. Until PBS realizes that it is time to represent the real America, I will not donate!"

(Ombudsman's Note: Programming for the CREATE channel is distributed by American Public Television, not by PBS. This Old House is distributed by PBS in conjunction with member station WGBH in Boston. The following response to Ms. Williams was prepared jointly by officials of APT and WGBH.)

Producers Respond:

As you may know, the CREATE channel draws its content from across the public television system and features a variety of hosts who represent diverse cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. One of our popular travel series, Grannies on Safari, features two African American hosts. Several of our cooking programs feature a number of diverse hosts including Ming Tsai, who is of Chinese descent, and Daisy Martinez, who is Puerto Rican. We make an effort to seek and include more programming which reflects the American demographic on CREATE and appreciate your concerns.

In the case of This Old House, the series is dedicated to finding qualified crew members for its projects that are reflective of the diversity in this country. The producers take great efforts to recruit and feature local craftspeople and artisans of various backgrounds and nationalities. To name just a few examples, the This Old House Roxbury Project featured both an African American homeowner and an African American contractor, the This Old House D.C. Project featured Latino homeowners and an African American architect, and the This Old House LA Project featured a Latino site supervisor.

By no means is our work done; but please be assured that public television is actively encouraging inclusion in all of the work that we do. It is a high priority for our producers to select participants who represent our viewing public. We agree that in reflecting the face of the nation, we could add to our roster of programming. Our commitment to do so is ongoing.

He's Back, Sort Of

It was no secret that one of the most well-known figures in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service, Bill Moyers, had received some $2 million in new financing from the Carnegie Corporation of New York earlier this year for a new television program.

It will begin in January. It will be called "Moyers & Company." It will be a one-hour program. It will offer, according to Moyers, "different news, some new voices and fresh thinking" featuring "people we think you and your community will want to know . . . a diversity of voices . . . an exchange of views among people who may disagree . . . but who nonetheless agree on the importance of a civil dialogue about their differences." It will not be distributed by PBS.

Rather, it will be presented on public television by PBS-member station THIRTEEN in New York for WNET and distributed by American Public Television, which is also, in addition to PBS, a distributor of programming to public television stations. Since PBS member stations are all independent and can air what they choose, Moyers' new program will probably be seen on many of those stations.

But the fact that PBS is no longer the distributor of one of its most durable, well known, iconic, and at times controversial, figures has touched off quite an outpouring of resentment among viewers who write to me. Moyers has retired from PBS twice before; in 2004 he ended his association with his popular "NOW with Bill Moyers" program after he became the critical focus of then chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, and then again in April of last year when he was 75, saying, "It's time to go."

The outpouring about his latest return was sparked by a brief New York Times story last week that reported on his scheduled reappearance and also reported that "PBS had told him it couldn't find an appropriate time slot." The media watch group FAIR, citing the Times story, then weighed in with a brief but critical commentary about PBS.

When I asked PBS for an explanation, a statement from Anne Bentley, vice president for corporate communications, read: "Bill Moyers has been a distinctive voice in public television for decades. His new project, presented by American Public Television and THIRTEEN, will build on this legacy. For various business reasons, including an interest to retain more control over the project's web presence, Mr. Moyers determined that APT is a better fit at this time."

Complicated by Pending 'Need to Know' Cutback

Both the Times story about no appropriate time slot and the PBS explanation that doesn't mention time slots are correct. But, like most things, it is more complicated, involving the availability of half-hour versus full-hour time slots and what was, at the time, the internal understanding within PBS that the weekly, one-hour public affairs program "Need to Know" was going to be cut to 30 minutes starting this fall. Moyers had originally talked to PBS this spring about a new half-hour program, but PBS officials knew that "Need to Know" was going to be reduced to a half-hour.

The "Need to Know" cutback was reported last night for the first time publicly by the Times, along with the departure of its host, Alison Stewart. Stewart, and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, who left earlier this year, were the original co-hosts of the program.

Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming at WNET in New York, where the program originates, told the newspaper that the program was being condensed for both financial and time slot reasons, noting that PBS, in addition to reducing the show's funding, had scheduled a new festival of arts programs on Friday night.

So, while the new half-hour format will focus especially on the 2012 election, it also means that PBS national public affairs programing continues to shrink in the aftermath of the closing last year of "Bill Moyers Journal" and "NOW on PBS" with David Brancaccio.

But before the latest cutback was announced, it was that Aug. 22, no-appropriate-time-slot report in the Times that was, understandably, hard to swallow for many who miss Moyers and who wrote to me at the time.

Here Is a Sampling of the Letters

How interesting that you have room for endless showings of Antique Roadshow (currently 4 per week) but no time slot for Bill Moyers!

Kathie C., Buffalo, WY

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I am very disappointed that you cannot find a time to air the new Moyers show. It used to be the ONE program I consistently watched and I haven't tuned into a regular PBS show since he went off the air. I feel that PBS is becoming less progressive and leaning more to the right, not giving both sides of a story and not dealing deeply into the graft and corruption of our corporations and government. TV and radio are less factual, less truthful and pandering to the huge money machines that feed your pockets and egos. I won't come back until things change and I will not pledge to public radio or TV until things turn around.

Nan Corliss, Bloomington, MN

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I certainly was disappointed to hear that PBS did not have a time slot for the new Moyers and Company show starting in Jan. 2012. Of all the stuff that you show, many of them re-runs, time could be found for a show of his caliber. This is why PBS must face up to the fact that they are no longer credible with many people.

Elizabeth Shipley, Port Hueneme, CA

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Right wing and conservatives have many outlets for their nonsense (still calling global warming a lie!!) so why worry about their opinions? They have plenty of channels, and radio to get their "fix." I've been reading their comments on this site and I am sick of them-and maybe sick of you, too. Why is it you "can't find a spot for Bill Moyers" new program? No Bill Moyers, no ME! Actually you probably don't need my money, since all those right wing corporations are obviously supporting you. You will become just part of the gang that will destroy our country for ordinary working (and not working) people. You probably don't even care because you need their bucks, so you can keep your jobs.

Judith Kurland, Pomona, NY

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"PBS told Moyers it couldn't find an appropriate timeslot." You've GOT to be kidding me! I suppose it's pointless to ask (again) that you carry Democracy Now! I like FAIR's conclusion that "(PBS') mission is sharply at odds with the founding vision of an independent, critical public broadcasting system."

C.S., Milwaukee, WI

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Bill Moyers is the last of a soon to be gone breed: the intelligent, honest, television journalist willing to speak truth to power. Why PBS would turn their back on him is beyond comprehension. I have watched PBS change a great deal in the last 10 years and it has not been a change for the better. Now, with this act, PBS has become a silencer of the voice of the people rather than a trumpet for them. You have lost a supporter, a member, and a contributor because in my opinion you have lost your soul.

Don Brancaccio, New York, NY

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I am concerned that the editorial standards and the programming at PBS is seriously compromised by the periodic attacks from the right-wing in America. Knowing that PBS is publicly funded, it occurs to me that PBS has increasingly succumbed to this assault by watering down its programming in an attempt to keep the money flowing and the Right quiet. This slow and subtly evisceration of what was once quite balanced coverage of the world is of concern since as a taxpayer I fear our last best hope for factual coverage, PBS, is no longer living up to its charter. The most recent example I can give is from the factual substance of an email from FAIR, which I received today and gives truth to what I have stated above. As a reasoning human being, I realize that taxpayer funding is the lifeblood of PBS, but if PBS finds it impossible to give what is truly balanced reporting due to its fear of losing funding, then what purpose does PBS serve. The right-wing smartly knows that attacks on PBS may not eliminate it as an entity. They also know that these periodic assaults have succeeded in watering down the content while giving a more right-wing slant to programming. The nation is beset by a corporate assault on truth in order to serve the interests of the few, and if PBS no longer is able to honestly present the truth then what purpose do you see public television having in our declining society?

Michael Carano, Tallmadge, OH

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I had been going to bump the notion of bringing back NOW with David Brancaccio, and try to shame you for letting APT get Bill Moyers, but then noticed the ad from, of all corporate rotters, Goldman Sachs, and realized there was no point. I'll encourage my local station to take as little PBS and as much APT programming as possible given your slow, sad slither down the slippery slope.

Doug Stevens, Minneapolis, MN

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