October 20, 2014

Harper’s runs “PBS Self-Destructs,” and PBS pulls ads


(image via Shutterstock)

(image via Shutterstock)

Democratic Massachusetts senator Ed Markey once said, “The problem is that once the debate on PBS begins, then Big Bird shows up and says, ‘Why are you trying to kill me?’ ” Well, sorry, Big Bird. There’s a big debate this week, sparked back-and-forth between PBS and Harper’s.

PBS debuted Ken Burns‘s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History last month, and booked a $6,000 ad in the October issue of Harper’s. A twelve-page critical essay by Eugenia Williamson titled “PBS self-destructs… and what it means for viewers like you” ran in this month’s issue of the magazine.

(Here’s a little taste: Beginning with a criticism of David Koch on the board of WGBH board, Williamson writes, “Today, the only special-interest group the [PBS] network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. . . . The present state of PBS is almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start…. [It] caters to seniors seeking the news of the day presented in a way that doesn’t raise their blood pressure.”)

In the end, the ad didn’t run. Did PBS decide to pull ads after learning about this story?

At first, it sure seemed so: The New York Post broke the story on Sept. 25, reporting that PBS had “pulled ads from the November and December issues” over the critical article that ran in the magazine’s October issue. It reported that PBS had no comment.

On Sept. 29, Current.org, the online companion to the bi-weekly printed version of the news organ for public media, picked up the Post story. PBS again declined to comment. Then FAIR, on Sept. 30, headlined an article: “PBS Uses Advertising to Retaliate Against Critical Coverage.” It didn’t ask PBS for comment.

As the story began to circulate, a small number of viewers wrote to me about the ads, not the essay. “This apparent act of retribution seems at odds with the principles of dialogue and debate that should be the foundation of a public service media organization like PBS,” wrote Brant Olson of San Rafael, Calif.David Uberti of Columbia Journalism Review adds:

Pulling advertisements is an age-old tactic for businesses facing media criticism to seek retribution. But in the case of PBS, which exists in part as a way to limit commercial influence on educational television, doing so just feeds into writer Eugenia Williamson’s thesis — that the idealistic, Great Society-era initiative often behaves more like a corporate or political organism.

An important detail: a full-page ad for The Roosevelts did run in the September issue of Harper’s, closer to the debut of the series on September 14 (and the DVD on September 16).

However, the October issue of Harper’s went online on September 11, just days before the show aired. The print edition arrived with subscribers that week, too. The timing was just generally terrible, and it sounds like a communication issue within Harper’s. (Somebody’s up against Big Bird.)

Beth Hoppe, the chief programming executive at PBS, responded with a correction–er, “talking points”–listing only one factual error (about a small staff change) but the omission of how many Peabody Awards and Emmys PBS had won. PBS’s ombudsman Michael Getler discussed Williamson’s essay and the decision to pull the ads earlier this month.

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.