Exhibits Pioneers and Protectors of PBS Journalism
In September 1971, the thirty seventh president of the United States was angry. Richard M. Nixon (January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994) had learned that PBS, the newly launched, government-sponsored television service, had hired perceived liberal journalists Sander Vanocur—formerly of NBC News—and Canadian Robert “Robin” MacNeil to host a weekly politics program. Nixon’s reaction was highlighted in a 1979 Washington Post article describing documents released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request:
"The above report greatly disturbed the President, who considered this the last straw," the memo said. "It was requested that all funds for Public Broadcasting be cut immediately. You should work this out so that the House Appropriations Committee gets the word."
Only four years earlier, on November 7, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which formed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB incorporated in March of the following year and established the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on November 3, 1969. PBS itself launched on October 5, 1970.
How did a non-commercial broadcaster with deep educational roots run afoul of the most powerful man on earth so early in its existence, and what individuals and institutions may have played a role in initiating or navigating the crisis? At least three relevant historical figures—as well as a legendary adversary—are documented in the BAVD collection.
Fred W. Friendly (1915-1998)
Producer Fred W. Friendly (1915-1998) became a media legend based on his long-term partnership with CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Friendly’s initial exposure to broadcasting was in 1937 at a Rhode Island radio station, where he created a daily program credited as possibly the first radio documentary series.
In the late 1940s, Friendly began his collaboration with Murrow by asking him to narrate I Can Hear It Now, a series of record albums using original recordings to portray historical events. The duo later developed the concept into See It Now, a CBS News television program premiering in November 1951.
See It Now never shied away from controversial subjects, including race, poor conditions for migrant workers, the tobacco industry and, most notably, the actions of anti-Communist firebrand Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The duo went their separate ways when the series was cancelled in 1958.
In 1966, after Friendly quit CBS News in protest of a network scheduling decision, Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy invited him to join the organization as a television advisor. In that capacity Friendly funded The Public Broadcasting Laboratory, an experimental, live, weekly magazine series distributed by PBS predecessor National Educational Television (NET). Friendly and Bundy later collaborated on a proposal for a new public television service that would be funded by commercial network contributions to a shared communications satellite. Ultimately Congress opted for an alternative approach developed by the Carnegie Corporation.
After PBS’ formation, Friendly and Bundy supported the creation of the National Public Affairs Center for Television (NPACT), a collaboration between NET’s Washington D.C. office and public television station WETA. The administration’s reaction to NPACT would have early and nearly devastating consequences for the new service. Arguably, Friendly’s oversized personality and worldview helped set the stage for the confrontation.
Robert F. Schenkkan (Mar. 17, 1917 - Dec. 9, 2011)
Robert F. Schenkkan (Mar. 17, 1917 - Dec. 9, 2011) was a seminal figure in the development, growth, and integrity of American public broadcasting. After graduating from and teaching at the University of North Carolina, Schenkkan was invited in 1955 to launch WUNC, the nation's tenth public television station. Soon he was recruited by the University of Texas, where he helped create the state's network of radio and television stations.
Schenkkan was credited by journalist/commentator Bill Moyers and others as a driving force in the creation of PBS, including his working relationship with President Lyndon Johnson in the development of 1967's Public Broadcasting Act. In 1971, Schenkkan composed a draft paper entitled, “Public Broadcasting and Journalistic Integrity: A Policy Statement of Public Broadcasting Service.” It’s not difficult to see Schenkkan’s passion for objectivity and accuracy manifested in such journalistic creations as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, now The PBS Newshour. He wrote:
For Public Broadcasting, standards of journalistic integrity will have to be higher than for other media. Public Broadcasting must meet those standards without sacrificing courage to caution, creativity to the commonplace, and blazing poetry to bland prose. Public Broadcasting must  provide an experience which is truly educational, not propagandistic--whether it be uplifting or unsettling. It must provide a forum for all points of view, give an opportunity for expression to the many, not the few, the poor as well as the rich, minority and majority.
Schenkkan’s journalistic convictions would be tested almost immediately. Beyond his efforts to cut funding for public broadcasting, President Nixon attempted to influence the new service by stacking the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board with “partisan appointees.” In January 1973, CPB announced its intention to exert control over all national PBS programming.
As a member of the PBS board, Schenkkan fired back by writing that the change “indicates that C.P.B. plans to take control of all national programing on public television. If this is true, it is my personal judgment that this decision will not be acceptable to the [station] licensee.” As Jim Lehrer later remarked:
“Bob really got his dander up, and thank God he did,” Lehrer said. “He was forceful, and he had credibility. He was a natural defender against the onslaught. Our defense against the Nixons of the world is that we’re instruments of nobody—not Nixon or any administration.”
Hartford N. Gunn, Jr. (1927-1986)
Gunn was known as a promoter of technological advancement, introducing videotape and color broadcasts and creating the Eastern Educational Network (EEN), a regional public television station cooperative. In the late 1960s, he and his WGBH colleagues advocated the creation of a new national public television service. In 1970, despite his initial reluctance to accepting the role, he became the first president of his own brainchild.
Under Gunn’s tenure PBS launched many of its most treasured series, including Sesame Street, Masterpiece Theatre, NOVA, and Great Performances. However, the service’s early years were anything but placid, suffering from a combination of political and funding hurdles. As former NET president James Day argued in his book, The Vanishing Vision:
PBS was a masterpiece of corporate compromise  and was in effect a political solution to a programming problem. As a membership organization—every station was eligible to join—PBS accommodated the fears and aspirations of the system's many and disparate elements, empowering them to bar forever the return of centralized programming authority.
Possibly the biggest test of the new organization arrived with the announcement of NPACT’s hiring of Vanocur and MacNeil. Nixon immediately launched the first in a series of moves to cut or control public broadcasting funding.
Gunn steered the service through these troubled waters, approving what could be regarded as PBS’ finest hour: NPACT’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings beginning on May 17, 1973. The hearings were a ratings hit and by 1975, during Gunn’s tenure, 38th president Gerald R. Ford would sign the Public Broadcasting Financing Act “to provide long-term financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
Gunn also designed a system that offered stations a measure of control—while also mitigating outside influence--by soliciting their vote on which existing and proposed programs would be financed from an annual funding pool. He implemented the first satellite interconnection of public television stations, allowing them to air and record programs transmitted from earth’s orbit. As former PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman wrote, “[Gunn] built the foundation, he was the visionary, he recognized the need for public television in this country.”
On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from office to avoid what was regarded as his inevitable impeachment. Friendly, Gunn, and Schenkkan would continue their service to American public broadcasting, although Gunn’s life would be cut short by cancer in 1986. Clearly, the dedication and contributions of these three individuals live on in the system’s ongoing commitment to journalistic integrity.
Further BA/VD Collection Research:
- • The author selected the subjects based on his experiences managing the PBS Archives. What other individuals or institutions documented in the collection may have influenced the early development of public television?
- • Do the documents, references, and media links listed in the BAVD collection entries reveal how the profiled subjects may have interacted with and influenced each other?
- • Public television and radio are inextricably bound by a shared heritage, joint licenses, technical facilities, and common funding sources. Which entities flagged in the BAVD metadata played similar roles in the development of public radio from the time of the founding of the NAEB in the 1920s?