Dept. of I Don’t Watch It, But I Wouldn’t Like It If I Did

Imagine the reaction if President Bush nominated a Secretary of Defense who proclaimed, in the Sunday New York Times, that she doesn’t really pay much attention to the military.

Well, yesterday brought us an equivalent. While the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) admittedly falls a little further down the pecking order of national priorities than the Pentagon, Ken Ferree, the new acting president of CPB, told the Times’ Deborah Solomon this weekend that he doesn’t really know (or seem to care) much about PBS and NPR — entities whose funding he now oversees.

The CPB, of course, is responsible for allocating funds not only for NPR and PBS, but also Public Radio International. In an interview yesterday in the New York Times Magazine, Ferree, when asked what PBS shows are his favorites, admitted that “I’m not much of a TV consumer.” He then tossed off some of names of a few PBS staples, like “Nova” and “Masterpiece Theater” before admitting “I don’t know.” Ferree has also apparently tuned in once or twice to the “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” because he confides to Solomon that “the Lehrer thing” is “slow.”

And it just keeps getting better. Asked if he perhaps prefers listening to NPR to watching PBS, he states flatly: “No. I do not get a lot of public radio for one simple reason. I commute to work on my motorcycle, and there is no radio access.”

Excuse me? Anyone want to inform the president of the CPB that NPR broadcasts throughout the day (and on weekends!), not just during the time he’s straddling that hog?

While this jaw-dropping obliviousness is unlikely to make Ferree a popular figure among his employees, they’ve got some company. Ferree has long aroused the ire of media activists due to the pivotal role he played in the FCC’s attempt to relax media consolidation rules in 2003.

Until the CPB gig came along in March, Ferree was head of the FCC’s media bureau, a position to which Powell appointed him in 2001. While there, Ferree was assigned the task of putting together the commission’s ill-fated attempt to demolish restrictions banning newspaper/television cross-ownership in single markets, and to encourage consolidation of media conglomerates across the country. The proposed rule changes caused a massive outcry from private citizens, with over 3 million Americans writing the FCC to voice their opposition to the plan. Despite this, Powell and Ferree pressed on, refusing to schedule public hearings on the topic, which Ferree dismissed as little more than “an exercise in foot-stomping.” A federal court eventually shot down the FCC’s plan.

Given Ferree’s disdain for public opinion, it’s no surprise that Chellie Pingree, president of the activist group Common Cause, labeled him “dismissive of the public interest obligations of broadcasters,” and “an unlikely choice to steer CPB in a way that would protect public broadcasting’s editorial independence.”

Ferree’s appointment comes on the heels of the dismissal of Kathleen A. Cox, who left after only nine months CPB’s president. Her departure was announced just a few weeks after conservative groups and some members of the Bush administration protested an episode of PBS’s “Postcards From Buster,” a children’s cartoon, which made incidental reference to a mother and her lesbian partner.

PBS caved and pulled the episode in the face of the criticism. One wonders how Ferree would have handled that one, since, as we’ve learned, he doesn’t actually watch public television. On top of that, he appears to have little concern for what the public does or doesn’t want from its taxpayer-supported media.

Paul McLeary

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.