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PBS Faces Two Controversies as Head Announces Departure

Terence Smith examines the two controversies plaguing PBS and PBS Chief Executive Pat Mitchell's decision to leave her post in the spring of 2006.

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  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The Public Broadcasting System finds itself in the midst of two controversies these days: One involving Buster, a cartoon rabbit; the other, strong language in an upcoming Frontline documentary about Iraq.

    Postcards from Buster is a children's program seen on 350 Public Broadcasting Stations. It features an animated rabbit who, a few weeks ago, hopped out of the woods and into a brewing debate.

  • CHARACTER ON BUSTER:

    It comes out there into the bucket?

  • CHARACTER ON BUSTER:

    That's the maple syrup.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    In a disputed episode, Buster, who travels the world learning about various people and cultures, goes to a Vermont farm to learn how maple syrup is made. He encounters two families headed by lesbian parents, although they are never identified as such onscreen.

  • WOMAN ON BUSTER:

    You have to meet my kids!

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The episode drew the ire of the new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, who wrote to PBS chief Pat Mitchell to express her "strong and very serious" concerns about it.

    Noting that the Education Department had provided funding for the series, Spellings wrote: "The Congress and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children."

    Mitchell, who had previously screened and approved the episode, announced that PBS would not distribute the segment, but denied that it was a reaction to pressure from Spellings or the administration.

    WGBH, the PBS station in Boston which produces Buster, aired the episode anyway, and representatives there say that 47 other stations have said they have either aired or will air the episode.

    This week, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is openly gay, joined the argument with a blistering letter to Spellings that read in part: "I resent your profoundly degrading comments about me and millions of other Americans."

    FRONTLINE DOCUMENTARY, U.S. soldier: You know, this is Indian territory out there.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Meanwhile, in the second controversy, PBS has warned its member stations that it cannot protect them against potential federal indecency sanctions if they broadcast a version of Frontline that contains 13 expletives spoken by U.S. soldiers in battle. The Company of Soldiers, produced also by WGBH, focuses on a U.S. Army regiment in Baghdad as it confronts insurgent attacks. The film is scheduled to be broadcast Tuesday night. PBS, concerned that the program may draw fines from the Federal Communications Commission, is making available to its stations both an edited and unedited version, as it often does with programs that have controversial content.

    But producers at Frontline said PBS had taken the unusual step of offering only the edited version of the film for direct airing. Stations that want the unedited or raw version will be required to pre-record it and sign a waiver exempting PBS from any damages or fines they might incur.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Joining me now is Karen Everhart, senior editor of Current, an independent weekly newspaper that covers public television and radio.

    Karen, welcome. Speaking of the second of these two controversies first, Frontline's The Company of Soldiers, in which the producers of Frontline maintain this is the way men and women in the armed forces speak under the stress and pressure of war.

    What are the member stations going to do? From your reporting, from talking to them, what do you think they're going to do?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, they're going to be weighing their decision very carefully as to whether they're going to broadcast the program on Tuesday or not in the edited or unedited version. I don't think we'll have a real sense of how many decide to do the unedited version until Tuesday.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    I take it the FCC has given no indication in advance — it usually doesn't — as to what is acceptable and what is not?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Yes, they won't make a ruling on a program before it airs.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    We're talking about rough language here?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    That's right. We're talking about strong language of soldiers in the battlefield.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Right. Do broadcasters at this point have a clear guideline? Because here is a year — last year — in which there were a record number of indecency fines issued by the FCC and, of course, there was a controversy over showing the movie Saving Private Ryan on Veterans Day. A number of ABC affiliates decided not to do that because they were concerned.

    Is this a gray area here?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Yes, definitely a gray area. That's part of the reason why there's so much anxiety about what to do with this particular documentary.

    PBS and its stations can't really afford to incur fines or the legal fees it would take to combat some sort of case before the FCC.

    But, on the other hand, the producers at Frontline feel the language is really integral to the journalistic integrity of their documentary and the experiences they found when they were with the soldiers in Iraq.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    This is getting to be real money because the House of Representatives passed a bill this week to raise the fine to $500,000 per incident.

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Yes.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So it can cost money.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Let me ask you about Buster the Rabbit and his problems. Where do things stand now on that?

    A number of stations, obviously, have already run the version despite the objections of the Department of Education.

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    A number of stations have run it already. Some are actually waiting until March 23, which was the original date that it was going to be broadcast.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And the reaction from individual stations about the segment? Do they — do most of them seem to like it, or do some share the objections of Secretary Spellings?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    It varies widely around the country. I mean, some station managers have said, "This is really innocuous and I don't see any problem with it at all." And others feel they just can't put it on the air in their community; it would just offend too many parents.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What reason did Pat Mitchell, the head of PBS, give for deciding not to feed it to the network at large? She did say that it wasn't in reaction, that she took it before Secretary Spellings wrote a letter? But nonetheless, what reason did she give for it?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    She said she felt it jeopardized the safe harbor that PBS provides to parents and children with its children's service; that parents can sit their children down in front of a PBS children's program and not worry about the content they're going to be exposed to.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And so she felt that this did jeopardize that, what you call 'safe harbor'?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    She was concerned that parents would — some parents would find it objectionable and be uncomfortable with it.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Even though initially upon viewing it earlier, she evidently had thought it was going to be all right?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Yes.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Right.

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    She told us she was personally comfortable with it, but her own personal feelings about it couldn't weigh into this. She had to consider how people in communities around the country were going to react.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Is this criticism that came from the Department of Education, is this part of a larger and critical atmosphere that PBS is working in right now?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, PBS has had a lot of criticism in the Republican administration for some of its public affairs documentaries. This coming on the actual…you know, on a children's program is unusual.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And this week at the same time — but I gather unrelated — Pat Mitchell said that she was going to step down, or to be precise, that she will not seek a renewal of her contract 15 months from now, when it comes up to continue in that position. Now, I know that you interviewed her. What's your understanding of that and the reasons behind it?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, I understood that when she renewed her contract the last time that it was a difficult decision for her, and she weighed it very carefully.

    And my sense from the meeting where she announced it this weekend was that she was really trying to say, "OK, here, I have this amount of time left and here's what I want to accomplish." And she laid it out pretty clearly. She wants to focus on finding on funding and she wants to focus on program content.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    All right. And the Department of Education — it, I understand, is considering proposals to renew funding for more PBS programming for the so-called "Ready to Learn" project. That's a decision to be made. Where does that stand?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, right now Public Broadcasting is waiting for the Department of Education to release requests for proposals for this grant program, the "Ready to Learn" program. And they have restructured it considerably. And PBS may be competing against other parties for money that — for a program that it has run by itself for about ten years now.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And this is millions of dollars?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    This is about $22 million a year for programming and content tied to children's programs.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    So is this in some jeopardy or at stake here because of this dispute?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, it may be. The people at PBS say they are moving forward with the Department of Education.

    They are going to clarify the terms under which they work, and they're being very positive about putting the — making a good step forward in this next phase of their relationship. But it has yet to be seen how the department's going to react to that initiative.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    That's my question. How has the department reacted? Are they now satisfied with what's been done?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    It's unclear whether they're satisfied or not. They haven't really spoken out about it.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Finally, PBS has — Pat Mitchell again has appointed an independent panel to look into standards at PBS. What is this expected to do?

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Well, it's an editorial review committee, and it includes prominent journalists and a few station managers, and they're looking at the guidelines for PBS content for the primetime programs.

    They're reviewing standards that haven't been updated since 1987 or so. So, the feeling is it's way overdue to look at those again.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    OK. Karen Everhart, thank you very much.

  • KAREN EVERHART:

    Thank you.

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