For 20 years the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced by a company owned by Liberty Media, the cable company of conservative billionaire John Malone.
“The American public called PBS the most trusted source for news and public affairs programs and the most ‘fair’ source for news coverage.” – PBS, February 20, 2014.
Last month, in response to Pando’s revelations that anti-pension mogul John Arnold secretly was financing PBS’s “Pension Peril” series, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting issued a scathingreport demanding immediate reform. Criticizing “the lack of transparency” at PBS, CPB’s ombudsman Joel Kaplan declared that public broadcasting outlets must let the public access details of their financial dealings.
So how’s that new commitment to transparency going?
Here’s how: Once again, a PBS flagship station is in the process of negotiating a deal with a politically active mogul. Once again, the deal involves the NewsHour — the same iconic PBS program that stealthily promoted Arnold’s anti-pension programming. And once again, PBS is refusing to disclose the deal’s financial details to the public.
The major difference this time is that this new story of secrecy isn’t about who funds the journalism on the NewsHour. It is about who actually owns the NewsHour.
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Most Americans likely assume that the NewsHour (which, after all, is made with support from viewers like you) is actually owned and produced by PBS. It is an understandable assumption considering PBS’s own president declared that the NewsHour “is ours, and ours alone,” and further considering that the program receives millions of public dollars every year.
However, since 1994, the NewsHour has been produced and primarily owned by the for-profit colossus, Liberty Media. Liberty, which is run by conservative billionaire John Malone, owns the majority stake in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions – the entity that produces the journalistic content of the show. While other standalone public television projects are often produced by small independent production companies, the NewsHour stands out for being owned by a major for-profit media conglomerate headed by a politically active billionaire.
But now that ownership is about to change. According to an internal memo sent to staff by NewsHour’s founders and minority owners Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, ownership of NewsHour will soon be transferred from Liberty Media to Washington, D.C.’s PBS member station, WETA.
We have concluded that the time has come to find a new, long-term home for The NewsHour. The current operation has worked beautifully because our long-time partnership with Liberty Media has been as perfect as any such relationship could be. When Liberty acquired its majority interest in MLP 18 years ago it was done with the agreement that editorial control and management would always rest with us–Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, individually. Liberty has honored that arrangement in such a way that has made it possible for us to have the independence we all have enjoyed all these years.
Despite the chummy nature of the letter, and the apparent generosity underlying the deal – Liberty is handing the NewsHour to PBS! – the deal raises a huge number of questions.