One for the Money
Television has been fashioned into a miraculous instrument. The opportunity is at hand to turn the instrument to the best uses of American society, and to make and increased service to the general public.
Carnegie Commission on Educational Television
The Public Broadcast Laboratory's two-year experiment, sponsored by Ford, was a watershed in the Foundation's relations with the public medium. Although Ford continued to pour money into public television for several more years, never again would the Foundation exercise the firm hand in the system's affairs that marked the heady days of PBL and before.
When Bundy brought Fred Friendly to the Foundation in 1966, it was rumored that his principal task was to manage Ford's fade-out from public television. If true, Friendly appears to have chosen a contrary course, adding PBL 's $12 million to the annual investment of $10 million that the Foundation had already committed. Nevertheless, as early as 1963, the handwriting was on the wall, and Friendly knew it. His 1967 book referred to Ford's ten-year, $10 million annual contribution as "only a crutch" that in effect acted "to prevent educational television from finding a financially secure base of its own." With the system growing, with costs rising, and with the Foundation being hit with requests for ever larger amounts, it was clear that Ford's largesse had to come to an end. The search began for alternate sources with the knowledge that
it would take an uncommon amount of luck to find one whose resources could match those of the Ford Foundation.
The initiative for the new search came from an old friend of the public medium, C. Scott Fletcher. As president of the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education, Fletcher had provided most of the money to get the educational channels reserved and the public television movement under way. After retiring from the Ford Foundation, he had become an executive consultant to the Educational Television Stations division of the NAEB, public broadcasting's professional association. (ETS, founded in 1964 with station funds freed by the Foundation when it forced NET to forgo its affiliation fee, wanted Fletcher to be its executive director. He was reluctant, however, to leave his retirement home in Florida.) Fletcher took up his new post fully aware that the lead item on the public-television agenda was the problem of its forward funding. He'd been around this track once before, but this time the stakes were higher; there were now more stations and programs to sustain, and their appetites had become accustomed to more expensive nourishment. Fletcher put together a plan of attack that would begin with a study of station finances and be followed by a national conference to discuss and analyze the results. The first step would clarify the extent of the problem, and the second would give it maximum visibility.
The study of station finances, launched in the summer of 1964 and funded out of the U.S. Office of Education, was completed in time for a national conference at the end of the year. Most of the more than 260 persons who attended represented local stations. But in his self-described "high-handed" manner, Fletcher decreed that no station manager would be allowed to attend unless accompanied by a member of their board. Fletcher wanted a commitment from the top. He also knew the problem would need political muscle for the next step.
Deciding what the next step was going to be would be a key factor in the conference's success or failure. Most delegates favored a request to President Johnson to call a White House Conference, not only to draw national attention to the problem, but also to mobilize the force of the Oval Office behind its solution.
Ralph Lowell, patriarch of the Boston station, proposed a different approach. Reading from a prepared text—an obvious if little-used tactic to move a debate to closure—Lowell called for the creation of a small presidential commission, made up of no more than twelve distinguished citizens who would be appointed by the president. The presidential commission would study the problem, collect expert testimony, and then, not more than a year later, recommend a national policy on the future course of public television. With discussion skills honed during his years with the Fund for Adult Education, Fletcher engineered the unanimous consent of the delegates for the Lowell plan.
The delegates decided to recommend to the president the names of those who could make up the proposed commission, and to have those chosen jointly sign the letter to the president. Fletcher sent Lowell his carefully chosen list of candidates, Lowell met with them in Boston, and, in June 1965, a letter jointly drafted and signed by the members of the proposed commission was sent to the White House. But after consulting with his advisers, Johnson declined to create yet another presidential commission, feeling, perhaps, that there were already too many. Or perhaps he may have wanted to avoid creating the appearance of a conflict of interest; commercial-broadcasting properties were the source of the Johnson family fortune. The president did, however, offer to lend his support to a privately financed commission. Fletcher and Lowell turned for help to the foundations. The Carnegie Corporation, whose president, John Gardner, was a frequent adviser to Johnson and was even then under consideration for a cabinet appointment, responded with an offer of a half-million dollars to underwrite the year-long study. James R. Killian, Jr., the retiring president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former science adviser to President Eisenhower, agreed to head the study as the chair of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. (When Carnegie funded a second study on public television ten years later, the earlier commission was dubbed Carnegie I.) Although the president's hand was apparent in the selection of only one commissioner—the manager of Johnson's broadcast properties in Texas, J. C. Kellam—all of Killian's appointments
were checked out with presidential assistant Douglass Cater to make certain they were acceptable to the White House. Sensitive to the need of courting Johnson's continued interest, Killian chose two who were close to the president: Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, chair of the Houston Post Company and a presidential adviser; and John Hayes, manager of the Washington Post 's television stations.
The Commission and its small staff spent fourteen months visiting stations, taking testimony, conducting statistical studies, and convening conferences. In January 1967, the Commission published its findings and recommendations as a book, Public Television: A Program for Action , which was sold at bookstores and newsstands. In addition to recommending that the system be renamed "public television," the Commission noted that it "includes all that is of human interest and importance which is not at the moment appropriate or available for support by advertising, and which is not arranged for formal instruction." In order to extend and strengthen educational television, the Commission recommended "that federal assistance be made available as a stimulus and support for local and state initiative." The Commission also proposed the creation of a second national production center and the strengthening of the first, NET—as well as support for local programming and for the production of programs by local stations for more-than-local use ("the greatest practical diversity of program production sources is essential to the health of the system"). In order to move the system toward the much-needed live interconnection of stations ("public television can never be a national enterprise until effective interconnection has been provided"), the Commission urged the Congress to permit the telephone companies to grant public television preferential rates or free access to its long lines. It also recommended that provision be made for programming research, technical research, and the recruitment and training of specialized personnel.
The most consequential of the Commission's recommendations, however, addressed the critical question of the who and how of future funding. The who part was easy; only one potential source was capable of supplying the millions that public television
would need and that was the federal treasury. The how part was more difficult. Convinced that the normal budgeting and appropriations procedure of Congress was "not consonant with the degree of independence essential to Public Television," the Commission opted for a manufacturer's excise tax on television sets to generate the revenues that would go automatically into a public-television trust fund. To receive and disburse these monies, the Commission called upon Congress to create a federally chartered, nongovernmental, nonprofit corporation to be known as the Corporation for Public Television. This new organization, with a board insulated from political control, would assume the leadership position long held by NET, leading the way to "a well-financed and well-directed educational system, substantially larger and far more pervasive and effective than that which now exists."
The Commission's report was not a bestseller, nor did it provoke a much-needed national debate on communications policy. Public broadcasters, of course, welcomed it with outstretched hands, seeing in it a dim and distant vision of fiscal salvation. Only a tiny handful expressed fears that the recommended changes contained the seeds of even more serious problems ahead, among them, Joan Ganz Cooney. The creator of Sesame Street once told me she thought the report was a "mischievous" document. I, too, had misgivings, even beyond the worrisome political implications of funneling government money into the system. In the recommendation for multiple production centers ("more than one NET"), I saw a further diffusion of the system's resources, finances, and energies. And I feared the consequences of placing public television's leadership with a body having nothing to do with the system's only legitimate function—the making and distribution of television programs.
I was certain, given public television's well-earned reputation for endless disputation, that the Commission report would gather dust in the musty archives and never be acted upon. I was wrong. With a dispatch rarely seen on Capitol Hill, Congress incorporated most of the recommendations into a bill (the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967) that sailed through both houses virtually without opposition. The speed and success of the measure was a tribute
to the lobbying skill of Douglass Cater, Johnson's legislative aide for educational matters, who shepherded the bill through both houses and into the Oval Office. President Johnson signed it into law on November 7, 1967, barely ten months after the Commission's report had been made public.
For the most part, the Commission's recommendations were embodied in the Act without substantial change. What the Commission intended as the Corporation for Public Television came under heavy lobbying from the radio faction and emerged as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting . One of its charges remained, however, to arrange for "one or more" systems of interconnection. Congress took care to emphasize that interconnection meant "distribution" of programs, not the "lock-step" networking of commercial television. The programs distributed on the interconnection were to be aired "at times chosen by the stations." Nor was networking the only fear of the lawmakers. In their charge to the Corporation to "facilitate the full development of educational broadcasting in which programs of high quality, obtained from diverse sources, will be made available" they added the phrase "with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature " (emphasis added). It was a barbed hook, the precise meaning of which would be argued for many years to come.
Missing from the landmark legislation was the Commission's key recommendation, the provision for an excise tax to feed a trust fund "insulated" from political control. Congress did precisely what the Commission hoped it would not do; it chose to aid public broadcasting through the annual appropriations process. Despite his earlier encouragement of the Commission's work, Lyndon Johnson was unable to buy into the arguments for yet another dip into the nation's pockets—he was already bogged down with an unpopular and apparently unwinnable war in Vietnam and was publicly committed to a fiscally impossible policy of "guns and butter." Nor was Congress any more disposed to accept the Commission's proposal; the lawmakers were reluctant to create yet another dedicated tax that would lie outside the control of their budgetary processes. Public broadcasters did not push the issue
because they feared that it would cost them the bill and with it the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Congress, however, having chosen the appropriations route, showed an indifference to the medium's most pressing problem by authorizing a $9 million appropriation for the Corporation's first year—less than the cost of a single season of Sesame Street —and then did not appropriate a single dollar of it. The Corporation's initial funding was a $1 million gift from the CBS network.
Congress ignored another of the Commission's key recommendations: the composition of the Corporation's governing board. The Carnegie Commission proposed to keep it above partisan politics by proposing a board of twelve, six to be appointed by the president and those six to select six others. Congress chose instead to create a board of fifteen, all of whom were to be appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. By specifying that no more than eight of the fifteen could belong to a single political party, Congress effectively politicized what was to have been a non-partisan governing body, a far cry from the public-trust stewardship that the Commission had envisaged. The Commission's fears that political dabbling in public television's affairs would result were later borne out, and at no time more dramatically and destructively than during the troubled years of the Nixon Administration.
It is remarkable to note in retrospect how little public debate accompanied the adoption of legislation that so radically changed public television's relationship to government. One might expect a voice or two to warn of the dangers of putting the public system on the federal payroll or to decry the possible loss of its freedom to speak out candidly and forcefully on issues about which honest people, including politicians, honestly disagree. Instead, witness after witness appeared before the Congressional committees, eager to speak in support of the bill. Virtually no one spoke up to challenge its fundamental premise. One who did was Fred Friendly. The veteran of a time at CBS when it had the courage, the will, and the money to rock an occasional boat, Friendly brought an intimate, first-hand knowledge of the passions that are aroused when deeply held beliefs are questioned. He warned the Senate
subcommittee that "we must avoid at all costs any situation in which budgets of news and public-affairs programming would be appropriated or even approved by any branch of the Federal government." But his fears of government funding were not shared by others. Most were silent on the charged issue, content to take the money and run and to leave the fate of public television in the hands of legislators whose record of restraint in such matters was notoriously bad. Nor was their faith in the White House any better served. President Johnson had promised to deliver within a year of the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 a plan for long-range, insulated funding. The promise was never kept.
In March 1969, President Johnson, fulfilling the mandate of the 1967 Act, named fifteen persons (fourteen men and one woman) to the Corporation board. Eight were Democrats, six were Republicans, and one was a declared independent. All were presumed to be, in the words of the Congressional Act, "eminent in such fields as education, cultural and civic affairs, or the arts." To whatever extent any failed to meet this mandated standard, the group as a whole was nevertheless the most distinguished to fill the Corporation board seats for at least another twenty-five years. Finding someone to occupy the chair proved difficult; some thirty candidates passed it up, feeling the challenge was "not worthy of their time or effort." Finally, Johnson prevailed on an old friend from his Congressional days, the former budget director, Frank Pace, Jr. A Harvard Law graduate, Pace had a long record of public service, including the post of Secretary of the Army, before leaving in the early 1950s to become chairman and CEO of General Dynamics. When the government's largest defense contractor ran into serious financial difficulties, Pace returned to public service as chairman of the International Executives Service Corps, a Peace Corps of sorts for retired executives. Knowing he would need capable hands to help with the start-up of the Corporation, Pace brought with him as his executive assistant a young lawyer who had been his associate general counsel at General Dynamics and his vice president at the IESC. Ward B. Chamberlin, Jr., proved to be what the new organization needed—a positive, self-confident,
and decisive administrator, gifted with the ability to be tough when circumstances demanded and to be amiably relaxed when they did not. His personal qualities, and the circumstances of the times, positioned Chamberlin to be a major player in shaping the public-broadcasting system that emerged from the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
A year would pass before the board named a president to the Corporation. In the interim, Pace and Chamberlin, aided by a tiny staff, guided the inchoate Corporation through its birth pains. Little was done, however, to clarify the precise role the Corporation would assume within the growing complexity of the public medium's structure. CPB's purpose, clouded in legislative rhetoric, was to facilitate "the development of educational broadcasting." Congress directed that this goal be accomplished "in ways that will most effectively assure the maximum freedom . . . from interference with or control of the program content." How these broad directives would be acted upon clearly would depend in large measure on the interpretation given them by the CPB's new chief executive.
In February 1969, a full fifteen months after the Act became law, John W. Macy, Jr., was named the Corporation's first president. His selection as the chief executive officer of the nongovernmental body was a disappointment to those of us who expected someone of the stature of an Ed Murrow or Frank Stanton, an experienced television person and someone who knew and respected the medium. Macy had absolutely no experience with broadcasting; he was a bureaucrat. Except for three years as executive vice president of his alma mater, Wesleyan University, the affable, silver-haired New Englander had spent his entire adult life in government service, most recently as the chair of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, where he sought out appointees to political posts as President Johnson's "talent scout." Despite a crew-cut hairstyle that gave him the appearance of a straight-arrow military man, Macy had a warm, open, and cordial personality that might have suited the pastor of a well-to-do suburban congregation. From a family lineage that extended back to New England's early Protestant settlers he had inherited a strong work ethic and a man-
ifest sense of rectitude. If he suffered a major handicap in his new position, it was the ominous timing of his appointment. Although named to the post in the waning weeks of the Johnson Administration, Macy took office in the first weeks of the Nixon Administration, and would, of course, be identified with the previous administration by the man now in the White House whose paranoia of purported "enemies" was legendary.
My own misgivings about his appointment were centered on his lifetime of government service. Not only was there danger that he might mistakenly view the Corporation as another agency of government, but he certainly would also look upon "public" in a different light than I would. (Years later, Macy wrote that his long years of government service and lack of broadcasting experience were a "liability" that "complicated the acceptance of the corporation's leadership by the elements in the system.")
All too quickly my fears were confirmed. At a meeting of the NET stations seven months after Macy took office—and to the amazement of those of us who thought the Corporation was supposed to stay out of programming—he handed us a list of "priority topics" for future programs. Worse, they were suspiciously like the announced priorities of the Nixon White House. (My own shocked reaction was to proclaim, prematurely, as it turned out, "the death of public television as we have known it.") A short time later, he pressed a program grant upon NET that it had not asked for, virtually compelling public television to cover a White House Conference on Hunger. Hunger was one of Macy's announced priorities. Another of his quasi-governmental priorities led him to create an ill-conceived and short-lived Public Broadcasting Environment Center, whose contribution to saving the environment was the commissioning of a Louis Harris poll to uncover America's "most serious problem." To no one's surprise, it turned out to be the environment.
The most visible and embarrassing episode that confirmed the Corporation's drift into the government's embrace came in 1968 with the highly publicized Nancy Dickerson caper. It had long since become a television tradition for the president to subject himself to an informal roundtable conversation with the trio of
White House correspondents from the three commercial networks. This year, however, the White House insisted that the public network be admitted to the table. That much was good. But then speculation arose that Macy had allowed himself to be used by the Nixon White House by accepting what was purpotedly its choice of the news correspondent to represent public television. No one questioned Nancy Dickerson's competence as a journalist; she had been NBC's White House correspondent and had resigned the post shortly before the incident. Still, her selection rankled the other network correspondents—Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, and John Chancellor—who felt that she had been too close to the presidency to be objective in her questioning. Before and during the broadcast, Dickerson remained discreetly above the fray. And although she performed her correspondent's role in a professionally competent manner, neither adding to nor diminishing the luster of public broadcasting, there were lingering concerns. Whether or not Macy had bowed to White House pressure in choosing Dickerson, it was manifestly inappropriate for the president of the Corporation to be dabbling directly in programming, especially programming that called for sensitive journalistic judgment. Few doubted the purity of his motives, but Macy was clearly out of his depth. He had simply acted as his experience had trained him to act, but unfortunately, in this particular situation, his experience was largely irrelevant. It was not a game to be played by the rules of the government bureaucrat.
Shortly after John Macy stepped into the presidency of CPB, Jack White announced his intention of resigning his post at NET. He had long felt, he said, "that any person in such a job should not hold that job for more than a decade." White, however, could read the handwriting on the wall: the Ford Foundation was ending its longtime advocacy of NET as the keystone in the public television arch. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, aspiring to the leadership role NET once had, would have no hesitation taking what it needed to achieve that end. Then, too, there were personally disquieting changes at the Ford Foundation. With the departure of his longtime friend Henry Heald, the support White had
leaned on during his years at NET was gone. The Ford presidency was filled now by a man whose style and character were quite different, and who, unlike Heald, rarely dealt directly with White. McGeorge Bundy preferred to channel the Foundation's business with NET through his television expert, Fred Friendly, who, as a veteran broadcaster, had his own idea of where the public medium ought to be headed.
For a time Bundy and Friendly were supportive of White's presidency. Their support began to crumble, however, soon after Friendly created the Public Broadcast Laboratory in what White and his staff saw as a clearcut repudiation of NET's longtime leadership role in national programming. The competition between the two Ford-funded organizations cast White in a discordant role and weakened Ford's confidence in his leadership. The earlier zest in the relations between East 43rd Street and 10 Columbus Circle was gone.
White was a man well-suited to his time. The nascent educational-television movement, groping for recognition and significance, needed the kind of aggressive, confident leadership and clear sense of purpose that he was able to provide. Bob Hudson, his senior vice president and the only man to serve all three NET presidents, said of White's contribution that it was "a dynamism, a sense of motion, a sense of mission " (emphasis added). The Ford Foundation, in much the same vein, praised White for giving the medium "a dynamic practicality and an electrifying sense of high mission " (emphasis added). And Scott Fletcher, who had virtually invented NET, was certain that the network would not have had the support it did from the Foundation without White's leadership.
During the decade of White's leadership, he had a hand in virtually every major gain the system had made—and the gains were substantial. Educational television had emerged from obscurity into a visible presence on the nation's television screens while the number of stations grew from 27 to 161. However marginal White's personal contribution may have been to the overall growth, his role was key in the single most important addition to that growth, the creation of a public station in metropolitan New
York, the nation's single largest market. And with barely enough money in the system to keep its motor running, White pushed educational television into the age of videotape and color. In programming he had promised significance, and by any measure—awards or critical and audience response—he delivered it. NET laid down a pattern for programming that even today defines public television. In the process, White, together with his principal programmers Kobin, Davis, and Dixon, set a standard of courage and independence that was rare for its time. Give me "barnburners," he urged his producers. And more often than not, they did.
White was deeply troubled by the shift in power away from NET and into the hands of an untried team with political ties to government. The shift was particularly ominous with Nixon's arrival in the White House. After less than a year in office, Nixon had made perfectly clear his lack of fondness for the media. Publicly funded television, clearly the most vulnerable area of broadcasting, was already in the White House's sights as a prime target. White shot off a warning to the affiliates at the time of his departure: "Unless a formula is found that provides insulation from political pressures . . . unless we can guarantee the independence and integrity of this powerful tool, we should forget the whole thing. . . . This country does not need a domestic USIA [the organization that operates the government's official Voice of America], and that is just what you'll have if major funding is derived from Congress solely on the basis of annual appropriation and review."
One didn't need to be clairvoyant to see that the sands on which the public structure rested were shifting. Change was in the air. I was about to discover the consequences firsthand.