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PBS Chief: 'Buster' Didn't Boot Her

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page C01

Days after coming under fire for flip-flopping on her support of an episode of the children's program "Postcards From Buster," PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell announced that she would not seek a third three-year term.

Addressing the Public Broadcasting Service's annual members' meeting in Washington Tuesday, Mitchell said she will leave when her contract runs out in June 2006.

Pat Mitchell insists her decision to leave PBS when her contract ends next year has nothing to do with the controversy over an episode of "Postcards From Buster." (PBS)

Her announcement started speculation that Mitchell, who joined PBS in 2000, had decided to throw in the towel after being pilloried by both sides over the "Buster" episode in which the animated bunny spends the day with real children whose parents happen to be lesbians. But Mitchell insisted yesterday that her comments at her "state of the union" address had "absolutely nothing" to do with "Buster," and that she had told the PBS board when she signed her current three-year pact that it would be her last.

"In fact, had I . . . seen the connection that might be drawn," she said, she would have concluded that "I'd better be sure and say that. It didn't occur to me. . . . I just wanted to be clear that I've got 15 months left on this job and let's make it as constructive as we can."

In her speech to station managers, Mitchell outlined her plans, including bolstering sources of sustainable funding and expediting the transition to digital. "We have a lot to do in the next 15 months," she said. "I have a big agenda and am happy to be in the midst of spearheading some of PBS's greatest successes."

Mitchell has managed to antagonize both liberals and conservatives since late last month with her fluid position on the recent "Buster" episode.

In each episode of the children's educational series, funded in part by the Department of Education's Ready to Learn initiative, Buster meets actual people who teach him about things that are special in their state. In the controversial episode, he is taught about farm life and maple sugaring in Vermont, by young children from two families that each have two mothers. Vermont offers civil unions to gay couples.

In other episodes, Buster has met Mormons in Utah, the Hmong in Wisconsin, people from the Gullah culture in South Carolina, an Orthodox Jewish family and a Pentecostal Christian family.

In one of her first acts upon becoming education secretary last month, Margaret Spellings fired off a letter to Mitchell objecting in the strongest terms to the episode because it "would feature throughout the show families headed by gay couples."

"Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode," Spellings said in her Jan. 25 letter, adding that "Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television."

Spellings finished her letter by telling Mitchell, "you can be assured that in the future the Department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds."

Three days before the letter was sent, PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan was quoted in the Boston Globe saying that Mitchell had reviewed the episode and was satisfied with its contents. "She's seen it; we now feel comfortable," Sloan said.

The day the letter was sent, PBS announced it would not distribute the episode, while insisting Spellings's letter had nothing to do with it.

According to one source with knowledge of the situation, PBS staffers had been prepared to stand behind the episode and were taken by surprise when Mitchell "pulled the rug out from under them."

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