Over the Air or Off the Air?
By Michael Getler
January 9, 2014
The powers that be at PBS were dancing in the aisles earlier this week (I didn't really see this but it was undoubtedly in the minimum-physical-contact, please; we're British style) when it was reported that the season four debut of Downton Abbey on Sunday evening was watched by a record audience of 10.2 million viewers.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a much smaller but vocal PBS audience was not at all pleased about something that wasn't watched. An hour-long program on the upheaval in the state's traditional political power structure — that gave Republicans sweeping control in a traditionally Democratic state — titled "State of Conflict: North Carolina" and presented by Bill Moyers was not shown on the state's major broadcast channel, UNC-TV, on Friday night, Jan. 3. It could only be seen on one of the station's digital sub-channels, UNC-MX.
UNC-TV is the largest PBS-member station in the state — actually a 12-station network with more than four million viewers — and what this meant is that viewers state-wide who don't have or can't afford cable and rely on the station for over-the-air broadcast of their favorite shows could not see what was a very hard-hitting — and mostly one-sided, in my view — program about what had unfolded in their own state.
The program was widely available nationally and online and was also broadcast over-the-air by a separate PBS-member station, WTVI in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday morning. So many within that city's large viewing area could, indeed, watch it.
Here's how one viewer in Stokesdale, N.C., put it in an email to me:
"The public in North Carolina have been grossly mistreated by PBS. Many people have been trying to view the Bill Moyers documentary 'State of Conflict.' This program has been seen by people in California, Colorado, and other states whereas most of North Carolinians cannot see it. I think PBS has a political agenda that they are trying to push in NC. I also think the people will be outraged that PBS continues to request donations from those people who have been unable to view a program about NC, in their own state!"
A Big 'But' and a Smaller One
I have said many times in these columns that things involving PBS frequently are "complicated," and this one is no exception.
For one thing, Moyers retired from his last program series on PBS, "Bill Moyers Journal," on April 30, 2010. His new weekly series, "Moyers & Company," debuted two years ago. But — and this is a big "but" — it has been distributed from the start by another provider of material for public broadcasters, American Public Television (APT), not by PBS.
So in one sense, this is a controversy involving a program distributed by APT rather than PBS. But, for the following reasons, I think it's fair game for the PBS ombudsman.
Moyers is an iconic figure in broadcasting and his long career with PBS continues to identify him with this service. And, since all PBS-member stations are independent and can air whatever they choose, many stations continue to broadcast the new Moyers show over the air via APT. So, lots of people still watch him on their local PBS stations. Furthermore, although distributed by APT, the program is "presented," or introduced into the system, by WNET, the big PBS member-station in New York.
The identification with PBS was extended in another way as well. The program's content focuses intensively on Art Pope, a wealthy businessman and political mover in the state as "at the heart of this conservative onslaught" that has put the power into Republican hands. I'll get back to Pope, but in a rebuttal to the Moyers' presentation, the Pope Foundation posted a response to "Bill Moyers' Unfair Attack . . . Broadcast through the PBS network on Jan. 3."
And there is this final bit of connection: Although top PBS officials declined to distribute the then new Moyers & Company series for broadcast two years ago, it did reach an agreement with APT this spring to present the program through PBS's online video player and mobile apps.
The situation in North Carolina is also complicated. It produced a fair amount of angry comments from viewers who do not have cable and were upset that they could not see a nationally-distributed program about their state on the largest channel in their state, and from others who did see it and found it "unabashedly political, one-sided programming," as a viewer in New York described it in an email to me.
I'll come back to the "one-sided" issue as well. But what initially I found most interesting about this situation was the fact that, for viewers of public television, it could not be seen on UNC-TV unless you had cable. After this was called to my attention and I watched the program, it also seemed to me that many people who could not watch this program might well have been those most affected by, and in agreement with, the subject matter as presented by Moyers.
One main reason why it is complicated is because Moyers & Company has always been shown only on the UNC-MX sub-channel since the series began in January 2012.
In a statement after the controversy erupted, UNC-TV's director of communications and marketing, Steve Volstad, made the following points:
"Contrary to some published reports, UNC-TV did not 'black out' or 'bury' the Moyers and Company episode . . . which was broadcast on UNC-TV's digital channel UNC-MX on Friday, January 3 at 10 p.m., and repeated on UNC-MX on Saturday, January 4 at 6 p.m. In fact, the series has been broadcast on UNC-MX since [its] inception in January 2012 — a fact which should be familiar to regular viewers of the program . . . This was also the case with the earlier Moyers series, 'Bill Moyers' Journal,' which was carried on UNC-MX from October 2009 until the series ended in April 2010, so there is a well-established history of programs produced by Bill Moyers being carried on UNC-MX."
Volstad goes on to explain that an on-demand streaming video file of the program is still available on the UNC-TV website and that UNC-MX is one of four channels provided by UNC-TV, and features several kinds of programming, including a number of public affairs programs like Moyers & Company. But it is toward the end of his statement that he explains: "Because of technological limitations, currently UNC-MX is only available to cable television subscribers, and not to over-the-air viewers." He adds that the station expects to overcome that and broadcast UNC-MX over the air sometime in the first half of the year.
Another Good, But . . .
This is all very helpful, but it also raises other questions. Why not make an exception and put this edition of Moyers & Company — which puts a sharp focus on the political situation in North Carolina that has attracted national attention in the press and is hosted by a major figure in broadcasting — on its main over-the-air channel? And why is Moyers only on the sub-channel list to begin with?
In a telephone interview, Volstad said that all the major, so-called common carriage programs that come from PBS are broadcast on the main channel, and that there has, of course, been lots of local coverage about what's happening in North Carolina. Also, I would point out that there was a lengthy PBS NewsHour segment on the battle over voting rights discrimination in the state back in August and another one in September, and one on gay rights in the state in May. Volstad said, in response to questions, that he was not aware of any specific discussions with programmers about moving this particular Moyers program to the broadcast format and pointed out that something else would have had to be taken off the schedule to make room for it. "Most people who are fans of Moyers have been able to find him and watch and I don't think it occurred to us to put it on. It was just in its normal place. If we wanted to censor it we wouldn't schedule it at all."
Aside from the APT/Moyers program, the only major PBS program delegated to UNC-MX is "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," which also deals at times with touchy subjects.
It is easy for me to say, since I don't have to figure out how to do these things, but it does seem to me that a real opportunity was missed here to more broadly serve public television viewers of a major station on a subject very close to home by finding a way, in advance, to have broadcast this program over the air and perhaps even to have sponsored a 30-minute discussion of it afterwards, as some stations do from time to time on controversial programs.
And this is a controversial program. But it strikes me as controversial in a couple of ways — one that is not so good but another that is worth thinking more about in today's political and media environment. These conflicting attitudes are why I concluded that this was a missed opportunity — assuming it could have been arranged — by UNC-TV to serve all its viewers better while also perhaps debating afterward how some approaches to what some describe these days as "journalism" or "documentaries" fit into the picture of informing people about what is going on. If you have not seen this program, you should do so by clicking here.
The Two Sides of One-Sided
Below are some of the messages, all critical, I received about this program.
And, as an inducement to keep reading through this long column, there are personal responses to these letters from Bill Moyers.
At the beginning of this column I also offered my view that this program was "mostly one-sided." Here's what I meant.
In the online introduction to the program, it is described as a "documentary." It points out that Republicans now hold the governor's mansion and both houses of the state legislature and "are steering North Carolina far to the right." At the heart of this, in Moyers' view, is Art Pope, a businessman "who is so wealthy and powerful that he is frequently described as the state's own 'Koch brother.'" This is a reference to the mega-billionaire Koch brothers who are also a powerful financial force in furthering conservative Republican causes. One of the main people interviewed by Moyers is New Yorker magazine writer Jane Mayer who is one of the few, and probably the leading, reporter in the country who has delved deeply and critically in print into both the Koch brothers and Pope. The Moyers program theme goes along similar lines to Mayer's piece on Pope.
But in my view, this is not your father's documentary. This is not Frontline. This is better described as advocacy journalism. My sense is that an independent, fair-minded viewer watching this would have no doubt that Moyers does not like what is going on in North Carolina, disagrees with all of it except the protests, and that the thrust of the program supports that view.
Some Broader Perspective
There is an interview with the head of a Pope-funded foundation but the saving bit of balance from what one would call an informed participant with no dog in the fight was provided by Adam Hochberg, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina. Moyers, in fact, leads into this, pointing out that the state's Democrats played right into Pope's hands in 2010 when "a Democratic governor had pled guilty to a felony campaign finance charge."
But then Hochberg weighs in: "We had a Democratic Speaker of the House go to prison on a bribery scheme. I mean there was a lot of, a lot of sleaze in the Democratic Party. We saw a backlash against President Obama and Obamacare, which is the same thing we saw nationally. We saw frustration over a lousy economy, which was the same thing we saw nationally."
I would add that while Obama, with a large minority, independent and youth turnout, narrowly won the state by just 14,000 or so votes in 2008, he lost by about 100,000 in 2012 with some of those folks staying home. What seemed missing from this program, aside from Hochberg's contribution, was any help at judging how big a role Art Pope, the unfettered money supply, the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision opening the floodgates to more money in politics, the redistricting (also done by Democrats when they can) actually played in North Carolina, as opposed to malfeasance or ineptness by some Democrats, dismay over national events, and Democrats not turning out. The Republican governor and legislature were, after all, elected by a majority of the voters. Whose fault is that? Did Pope engineer all that?
On the other hand, some kind of a well-balanced he said/she said documentary might not have had any impact beyond what people already know. All of the issues that Moyers targets — big money in the hands of a few controlling interests, new regulations on voting rights, corporate taxes, cuts in education and medical care — are very real, legitimate issues and need to be aired without pulling punches. Whatever one feels about Moyers, he is one of the only figures on television that goes after these issues head-on. These are tense times. Advocacy journalism needs a place at times within the mix of public discourse.
But I have always felt, as a consumer of news and as a journalist, that programs suffer rather than benefit when they are easily perceived, by people who come at this with an open-mind, as advocacy messages. Even when facts are there, and Moyers' program presents lots of them, most people can smell a tone a mile away.
You must have tough and hard-hitting reporting to expose the realities of today's extraordinary wealth, influence and politics. But you also need to lay out the complexities of these situations.
New York Viewer Calls Program 'Attack Piece,' Moyers Responds
Please explain how PBS can ask for public money and donations when it carries unabashedly political, one-sided programming like Moyers & Company? I stopped donating to PBS long ago because of the Moyers program and never watch it. Unfortunately, my TV was still on PBS after I had watched Downton Abbey. I couldn't believe how much worse Bill Moyers had become. His program was an attack on the North Carolina Republican Party and free programming for North Carolina progressives. The material was an attack piece filled with out and out bias. This is not journalism. It is partisan politics of the worst kind. I didn't know how far PBS integrity had fallen until tonight. PBS does not deserve public support in any way. I would suggest that no one send contributions to an entity that is just another branch of the progressive movement.
New York, NY
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In response, we can't speak on behalf of PBS or its fundraising policies. We can, though, note that we take no money from PBS or public television stations for the programs we produce and provide to those stations at no charge to them. We also respectfully disagree with your description of the documentary as an attack. That's simply not true; it was a fact-based report. Indeed, none of the facts presented in the report have been challenged as untrue. Unfortunately, first and second most powerful Republicans in North Carolina, Art Pope and Governor Pat McCrory, did not respond to our interview requests, and Mr. Pope has not responded even now to our invitation that he appear on an upcoming broadcast to discuss what we reported. Francis De Luca of the John William Pope Civitas Institute did appear and spoke well on behalf of the Republican agenda, did agree to speak with us. Furthermore, in noting the "sleaze" in the Democratic party (our film does not use that word with regard to Republicans), we in no way imply that one party is above criticism in North Carolina, and we welcome all efforts by North Carolina public media outlets to investigate Republicans and Democrats alike, and to help citizens there better understand how hidden money is spent on politics by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, and anyone else hoping to influence the debate in your state.
Moyers Gets Last Words in Response to Missouri Viewer
My comment is about the one sided reporting that too often dominates PBS. Today my disbelief centers on the Moyers and Company programming on North Carolina. This program is not reporting but vilification of conservatism. You insult the voters of North Carolina, who by the way put these people in power, by insinuating that it only took money. And while much of this may be true, then to be fair, the same principles, or lack thereof, apply to both sides of political landscape. With a minimal amount of research, one could find equally grotesque abuses of power from the liberal agenda enacted by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. We could even take the idea of buying your way into power straight to the top if you examine the rise of President Obama. Finally, regarding the idea of requiring a picture ID for voting, who are we kidding? Identification is the very foundation of the United States. Why don't we just use the IRS for voting verification, it is good enough for the affordable care act. Thankfully, Adam Hochberg offered some non-partisan points of view. Perhaps I have missed the pro-conservative shows that showcase how states like Texas have prosperity through conservatism or the reporting of the good things that are happening for North Carolina because of the fiscal decisions that were made. The whole country is not liberal, please keep that in mind when you program for the Public Broadcast Station.
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Thank you for the comment, and for conceding that "much of [what is in the program] may be true." In fact, it's all true. We would note that in the John William Pope Foundation's critical response to our program, no fact that we reported was challenged as incorrect.
Your assertion that both sides of the political aisle are guilty of "grotesque abuses of power" is not one we would take issue with; in fact, we heartily agree. We even called attention in the report to the corruption of the Democratic Party in North Carolina that "played right into" conservative hands. However, it was not our intention — nor could it possibly have been in the short time allotted to our program — to do a report that catalogues the many abuses of power of American political life. Rather, we chose to focus on something unique to North Carolina: the extraordinary story of a single individual having so much influence and power in one state.
We do take issue with another of your assertions, that "identification is the very foundation of the United States." Rather, we would argue that the Constitution is the foundation of the United States. And it is enfranchised voters and, yes, a free press, that help keep that foundation solid. Finally, we respect your right to say that we insulted the voters of North Carolina, but with equal respect we respond that in fact we have done what the job of the press has always been to do: we have informed the voters of North Carolina.
With best regards,