Corporate and Financial Sectors Dominate the Boards of Public TV Stations

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In October 2014, Aldo Guerrero of Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR) reported that individuals with connections in the corporate and financial sectors dominate the executive boards of public television stations. FAIR conducted a study to determine trustee occupations, specifically to discover their corporate connections. They researched the boards of five major public television stations in the United States: WNET of New York City/Newark, WGBH of Boston, WETA of Washington, DC, WTTW of Chicago, and KCET of Los Angeles. The study reveals that 84% of the boards’ 182 members have corporate backgrounds, and 138 members are “executives at elite businesses.” The report also provides the percentage of corporate and non-corporate board members for each television station. WTTW and WNET had the highest percentage of corporate members, 92%.

Board members with corporate ties clearly dominate important decision-making positions. How can they promise the public impartiality when deciding on programing if they are also obligated to protect their affiliated corporation’s image? If the television station wants to air a program that criticizes or exposes a scandal within the corporation they work at, will they let the program air, or try to protect the business’s reputation by censoring the show? Corporate power is difficult to disregard. For example, David Koch withheld a large donation to WNET after it aired the film Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream in 2013, and he eventually stepped down from its board. After witnessing the consequences of showing a film that criticized a major donor, PBS pulled the film Citizen Koch (which examines Koch’s political influence) from its intended programming in an effort to self-censor, as Jane Meyer reported in the New Yorker in 2013.

Although there was some establishment news coverage of the Citizen Koch scandal in the New York Times, such coverage fails to adequately link this incident to a larger trend of corporate influence on public television programming. Although the Koch example is important because it draws the public’s attention to inequalities of wealth and the influence of money, it also distracts from the principal issue regarding censorship of a medium that has historically been a place to freely inform and educate the public about issues with otherwise limited visibility. Public television should be the ideal place free from corporate blockage to show contemporary documentary films like Citizen Koch. The Koch case also overshadowed other incidents, like when $3.5 million from John Arnold convinced WNET to air a program supporting his “nationwide legislative push to slash public employee pension benefits”—as David Sirota reported for In These Times. Audiences are not made aware of these influences when public television claims to operate under the support of “viewers like you.” Public television frequently presents itself as a medium that provides educational and nonconventional programming, but what does public television become if they can no longer promise that kind of programming free of corporate interference?

Source: Aldo Guerrero, “Who Rules Public TV?,” Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting), October 1, 2014, http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/who-rules-public-tv/.

Student Researcher: Michelle Schultz (Pomona College) and Dante Francesconi (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Pomona College) and Marco Calavita (Sonoma State University)