PBS pulls ads from Harper’s Magazine after critical essay

Piece argues public broadcaster has fallen under the sway of political influence and outside money

After a sales representative at Harper’s Magazine received a phone call on September 18 from a disgruntled advertiser, the subject of a critical story printed the week before, Publisher John R. MacArthur wasn’t surprised that it decided to pull ads from subsequent issues. But he was shocked by who that advertiser was: PBS, the public broadcaster famous for Big Bird and Ken Burns’ epic historical documentaries.

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“Our readers are their viewers, which is why we thought it was an important story,” MacArthur said, referring to an essay in the October issue, “PBS Self-Destructs,” which argues that corporate and political influence increasingly cloud the network’s programming. “We’re part of the same family. So to have done such a petty thing does make me suspicious.”

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. [Disclosure: Williamson occasionally writes for CJR, too.]  The broadcaster distributed a peculiarly labeled list of “talking points,” first obtained by Current.org, for station managers to respond to the criticism. And it will publish a letter to the editor in the November issue of Harper’s, which will not feature any PBS ads.

PBS Distribution, the network’s marketing subsidiary sometimes known as PBSd, ran a full-page spot hawking box sets of Burns’ latest saga, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, in the September issue of the magazine. But after the October edition was delivered to subscribers and posted online on September 11, MacArthur said, PBSd pulled ads from the magazine’s November and December issues. Citing an insertion order for the pair of ads, the publisher added that PBSd would have paid $6,000 for the former and nothing for the latter — part of a buy two, get one free deal.

“I’m not saying we don’t need the money,” MacArthur said, adding that PBS gave Harper’s no reason for why it cancelled the ads. “But it’s more of a symbolic punishment. It’s a reprisal.”

A statement from PBSd said it cancelled an ad slated for the magazine’s October issue after learning that Williamson’s story would run. A Harper’s sales representative had offered the option of moving the ad to November’s edition, it added, but the marketing arm declined. “PBSd determined that the later timing did not meet our needs since [The Roosevelts] was airing the week of September 14 and the DVD became available on September 16,” the statement read.

A spokeswoman for PBSd declined to comment when asked whether it ever had additional plans to buy ad space in the November or December issues of Harper’s.

Commissioned more than eight months ago, Williamson’s 12-page essay describes how the public broadcaster’s inherently shaky financial footing opens it to influence from deep-pocketed, politically connected backers. The piece includes input from representatives of PBS, the Independent Television Service, NewsHour, member stations, and network mainstays including Burns. It also features reporting from a protest of billionaire and conservative political donor David Koch’s seat on the board of trustees at WGBH, Boston’s prominent public television station. But its money quote comes from Bill Moyers, a commentator who has graced PBS airwaves for more than 40 years:

‘Night after night,’ Moyers told me, ‘the realities of life for the vast majority of Americans rarely show up on public television — neither on its public-affairs programming nor its prime-time fare. There has been one documentary all year on the flailing middle class and the forgotten poor. Our Washington coverage, by design or not, serves up ‘news’ the way the butler serves tea on Downton Abbey, so as not to disturb the master class. Even my friends at WETA, our flagship station in Washington, passed up the award-winning documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth to air instead another episode of Antiques Roadshow and a program about the British royal family. And PBS has commissioned a series for next year, using U.S. taxpayer funds, on the ‘great homes’ of Great Britain. Not on homelessness in America. Unbelievable!’

In the talking points PBS reportedly distributed to station managers following the Harper’s critique, it alleges “many basic errors and omissions.” But it doesn’t elaborate on any factual inaccuracies, instead focusing on the litany of awards and other public plaudits the broadcaster has received. 

To be sure, PBS’s reputation is solid. It earned 12 Peabody Awards for its 2013 programming alone. And polling has consistently shown it to be the most trusted name in television news. But the public broadcaster’s response to one article’s criticism has raised more questions than it answered.

“I still would welcome a debate,” MacArthur said. “I’d be happy to sponsor a forum between PBS executives, maybe Koch himself, and anybody else. Charlie Rose could do a roundtable.”

UPDATE: On Oct. 7, a day after this story originally ran, PBSd co-president Andrea Downing emailed CJR the following statement:

As has been noted, PBSd was slated to run an ad promoting The Roosevelts on DVD in the October issue of Harper’s.

In July, an advertising representative from the magazine emailed PBSd noting that there was going to be a story about PBS in that issue. The sales staffer offered PBSd the option of canceling or moving the ad to November. At that time, the PBSd marketing team agreed to the magazine’s offer to move the ads to the November issue with additional free placement in the December issue.

When the Harper’s article was published, my staff specifically called my attention to it and the ads we had planned for November and December. 

To make it clear, I had no issue with the essay. It was my ultimate decision, however, that the later timing did not meet PBSd’s needs since The Roosevelts series was airing the week of September 14 and the DVD became available on September 16.

It appears that our concern about timing was not communicated clearly to Harper’s.

At no time did PBS suggest that we remove the ads from Harper’s. Nor did Harper’s indicate that they had a problem with Public Media Distribution [PBSd] canceling the ads as Harper’s had originally offered to cancel or push the ads.

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: ,