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Forum examines public broadcasting

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You'd expect low turnout for a community forum on media policy, held at a church on a hot August evening. So it was a surprise to everyone, including U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Chapel Hill), that more than 200 people showed up last Thursday at the United Church of Chapel Hill to support public broadcasting.

Price said the turnout reminded him of the public hearing on the Federal Communications Commission's changes to media ownership rules held at Duke Law School in March 2003 that drew an overflow crowd of citizens eager to make their objections to proposed FCC rule changes that would have allowed further media consolidation. Those rules passed, but were eventually overturned thanks to public protest. "It turned out this was something people passionately cared about," Price recalls. "I have not seen this kind of crowd since then on an issue involving media and media policy."

A recorded speech by Bill Moyers was projected Thursday on a large screen in the white-walled fellowship hall. It was given in St. Louis in May to the National Conference for Media Reform, a gathering of amateur and professional media makers and others concerned about the civic consequences of corporate consolidation. In his impassioned address (available at www.freepress.net/conference), Moyers spoke with candor and emotion about the state of journalism and the virulent criticism of public broadcasting by the Bush administration. The text of that speech has made the rounds on the Internet in the weeks since it was given. Local people who attended the conference have said it moved them to take concrete action at home--such as organizing Thursday's event.

Moyers' opening anecdote proved unexpectedly apt for Thursday's crowd. The audience expressed passionate concern for the future of PBS, NPR and other publicly funded media, but when the time came for questions, they grilled representatives of UNC-TV about programming decisions and oversight. Moyers had once been asked to fill in at the last minute for another speaker, only to find the crowd unresponsive. "You said I'd be among friends," Moyers said to his host. "You were," he replied, "they just weren't your friends."

Joining Price was Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh, which owns the Fox50 and WRAL television and radio stations and the Durham Bulls baseball team. Price and Goodmon spoke about their work in Washington during the past 2 1/2 years, lobbying for greater diversity and localism in media and attempting to reverse the trend toward consolidation. "There's really some wonderful energy coming together through the media reform conference and through the kind of turnout we're seeing here tonight," said J.C. Markatos of the Triangle group Balance and Accuracy in Journalism. BAJ and the non-partisan public interest group Common Cause North Carolina joined with the Orange County Democratic Party to host the forum.

"Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference," Moyers said, bemoaning the falling standards of reporting and analysis. He described his long career in journalism, including the creation of PBS in 1967, which he witnessed as part of President Johnson's administration, and President Nixon's fight to eliminate it. Bush's appointment of Kenneth Tomlinson to chair the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the organization that oversees PBS, goes beyond any previous attempt to politicize it, he said.

After 9/11, Moyers was asked by the network to develop a pubic affairs show called "NOW," which aired Friday nights and included original reporting, incisive analysis and interviews with a wide variety of political and cultural figures. Conservatives charged that Moyers was using the publicly funded network as a platform for a liberal point of view. Tomlinson paid a consultant $10,000 to analyze the political balance of Moyers' guests; when that report did not support charges of liberal bias, Tomlinson had it suppressed.

The pressure eventually led Moyers to retire. "NOW" stopped running about six months ago. But continued personal attacks by the right wing have made him reconsider retirement. "I should put my detractors on notice that they might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair."

Price spoke after the screening about the process of restoring PBS funding after Rep. Tom DeLay's attempts to cut $100 million from this year's budget. "Constituents really rose up in force on this. Many of you know the kind of campaign that Moveon.org can organize--well, maybe you don't," Price added. "But I can tell you from the receiving end, it's formidable."

Goodmon gave his assessment of Kevin Martin, Bush's appointee to replace Powell on the FCC. "The new chairman is a North Carolina boy. Went to Carolina. Then Duke. But he's working for the president. He was the president's lawyer for the election committee. And he has been told to change the rules so that newspapers can own television stations."

Goodmon said people should realize that public broadcasting is about to enter "a golden age" thanks to the conversion of its signal from analog to digital, a technological change he has championed for UNC-TV's 12 transmitters and at his own stations. "All right, so, get psyched. Get over the Bill Moyers thing. There's nothing we can do about who the president appoints to the CPB Board," he said to perplexed faces in the audience. "PBS is plenty strong. PBS can handle this."

Once the Q&A began, a question came quickly that seemed to be addressed to the row of four UNC-TV employees sitting in the audience. One questioner complained that the station moved "NOW" to 2 a.m. right around the time that Moyers became a political target of the right. "I'm wondering ... how we go about defending against censorship at the local level as well." The audience applauded.

One of the station's representatives, who did not identify herself, stood up and explained the programming decision. "The time that the gentleman is talking about when it was off Sunday afternoons was during our pledge drive when most of our regular programming is off the air completely." she said. "We put the Moyers program on at a time when we still made it available, figuring that by now most of us have learned to use our VCRs or our TIVOs." Loud booing filled the hall. "Failing that," she continued, "as Mr. Moyers himself said, you can go to his Web site and pretty much get the full text of what that week's episode was."

"OK, that was a good question," the moderator said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

At that point, UNC-TV's director and general manager Tom Howe stood, took the microphone and introduced himself. "First of all thank you very much for being here and for your support of public broadcasting," he said. "As far as censorship, there's a difference between editorial judgement and censorship." He explained the station's decision to broadcast Bill Friday's popular show, which historically airs in the same Friday evening timeslot as "NOW" did nationwide, and to move "NOW" to Sunday afternoon. "In fact," he said, "it was watched by more people in North Carolina on Sunday afternoon than it was watched nationally by viewers of PBS on Friday night. So it actually increased the audience."

Howe added that the station has its own board of trustees, appointed by members of the university administration and the legislature, and he invited anyone to write to them. "But just because we make a decision that you disagree with doesn't necessarily mean that other viewers agree with you," he added.

Another audience member asked about the makeup of the board, and Howe's explanation seemed to satisfy. But the defensive interaction still hung in the air. As an audience member was asked to wrap up her question to the panelists, one of the UNC-TV representatives chuckled.

Other questions touched on reasons for the cancellation of the NPR-syndicated program "The Connection," the lack of media coverage of global warming and the political power wielded by newspapers. If the questions seemed conspiracy-minded, it wasn't hard to understand why: They'd just heard Moyers tell them how political operatives in Washington deliberately got his show off the air.

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