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Failing Upward at CPB

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Buried beneath the controversial high-profile appointments and nominations for President Bush's second term is one that deserves a second look – yet hardly anyone in the mainstream media has done so. Bundled up with the appointment of Kevin Martin as head of the FCC on March 16 came the naming of Ken Ferree as chief operating officer for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This isn't just some backwater post. CPB is in charge of developing programming for National Public Radio, Public Radio International and PBS. And Ferree is no newcomer to the scene. He has a four-year track record as a conservative activist within the government since his appointment to head the FCC's Media Bureau in 2001.

At the FCC, Ferree acted as the key aide to Chairman Michael Powell on media policy formation. As head of the FCC's Media Bureau, Ferree was a key player in putting together the Commission's attempt to ram through a set of rules in 2003 that would have taken the lid off media ownership rules, effectively allowing media conglomerates to buy up as much of the media landscape as their riches would allow.

It was in part Ferree's plan, then, for which Powell so ineptly stumped and thereby helped to ignite unprecedented opposition from a newly energized public= In the end, a left/right alliance in Congress, coupled with favorable rulings in the federal courts, successfully shot down the plan … for now. But just three weeks after joining CPB, this fan of further concentrating media power in the hands of just a few mega-corporations will act as president of the guiding power behind all public programming in U.S. broadcast media, likely a pit stop on his way to being given the top spot for the remainder of Bush's term.

CPB's outgoing president, Kathleen Cox, may not have been ideological enough for the Bush administration and the increasingly conservative board of directors at CPB, acting as a largely professional and relatively apolitical bureaucrat between the warring sides in public broadcasting. The same week Cox left the CPB, the organization's board named two "ombudspersons" to review all programming on public radio and TV stations, including those not funded by CPB or the federal government.

Now that Ferree is in charge of the CPB (the post is officially temporary, but he is known to want to stay full-time), it's worth taking a look at his record.

Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, told the New York Times last week that during Mr. Ferree's time at the FCC, he "seemed to be dismissive of the public interest obligations of broadcasters." She added that Ferree "seems an unlikely choice to steer C.P.B. in a way that would protect public broadcasting's editorial independence and that would ensure that no political or partisan interference mars its deeply important mission of providing substantive news and information to the American public."

With regard to the FCC's failed deregulatory policies, Ferree appears committed to the same discredited path as Powell. He told USA Today back in May 2003 that "The idea that media companies have gotten so big and powerful that they're a threat to diversity and freedom and we need a government to check them, I'm not saying that's ridiculous, but we have to recognize there's the law here and the First Amendment." Ferree was, if anything, even more contemptuous than his boss of public input into the process of adjudicating the ownership of the airwaves. In response to Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein's desire to hold public hearings on their plan, Ferree dismissed the idea as unhelpful to the commission, terming it merely "an exercise in foot-stomping."

The anti-democratic bias goes even deeper. According to the Center for Public Integrity, when the FCC was deciding how to go about loosening restrictions on media ownership back in 2002, it based its market research primarily on analyses not available to the public. This private data was only released to public interest groups after the FCC issued a "protective order" designed to keep the information secret.

Who made the decision to hide the data from the public? Coincidentally, it was Ferree himself. He personally stipulated that the data be made available only to "authorized representatives" and those "designated by the commission in the public interest." In order to have access to the data, viewers had to swear, in writing, not to share it, and were only able to view the data at FCC headquarters and were not allowed to make copies.

Now that Ferree has left the FCC and is in charge of public broadcasting, we can expect an accelerated commitment to the very policies that the public, Congress and courts all rejected as anti-democratic and contrary to the public interest. Given the power and influence he will be able to exercise on some of our most precious public resources, you'd think it might be worth a story … somewhere.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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