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PBS fields controversy on press tour

Paula Kerger, president of PBS.
Paula Kerger, president of PBS. (Frederick M. Brown/getty Images)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 11:03 PM

PASADENA, CALIF.

PBS days at a TV press tour can be pretty controversial. This year, for instance, there was much debate as to whether PBS President Paula Kerger, during her Q&A, would be first asked:

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(a) Are you worried about federal funding, with a new GOP-controlled Congress coming in and all that backlash over National Public Radio's firing of Juan Williams over an appearance on Fox News Channel?

Or:

(b) With public TV station KCET in Los Angeles, the country's second-largest TV market, going rogue, are you worried other PBS member stations might follow suit?

If you put your money on (a), you win. Congratulations.

"With the new Congress coming in, and Bill O'Reilly, and the firing of Juan Williams [by National Public Radio] . . . coming in a little row, what's your outlook for continued public funding at PBS? . . . In '94, there was a big worry that they'd cut off the funding, and it seems even more dire in this cycle," a TV critic asked Kerger right off the bat at Winter TV Press Tour 2011.

"Quite concerned," Kerger dived in, saying PBS is working with its TV stations, which get the bulk of those federal appropriations, "making our case to the American public."

But Kerger had already done a bang-up job, declawing the question in her opening remarks, when she noted she's "extremely proud that for the seventh consecutive year, the public has named PBS the nation's most trusted institution, according to a national annual poll conducted by GfK Roper."

So, once she actually got that first question, she smoothly referred back to that Roper poll, which, she said, also captured some additional data about the public's feelings on federal support for public broadcasting:

"In fact, every year in those seven years [of the polling], with the exception of one, viewed public broadcasting as the best use of tax dollars, second only to the national defense. And that one year we were actually viewed as important as the investment in national defense," Kerger said, coughing loudly - she had laryngitis - but with the easy assurance of one who is confident about having nipped something in the bud.

Naturally, talk got around to Williams, who was let go by NPR in October for comments he made on FNC. Williams was already a contributor to FNC and was subsequently re-signed by FNC in a multi-year pact that expands his role there, a deal reported to be worth up to $2 million.


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