Atlanta’s Public Broadcasters Deserve Scrutiny

Here is the full Q & A conducted via e-mail with Public Broadcasting Atlanta spokesperson Hilary Silverboard. It took place before the Johnny Kaufman story discussed further below aired on April 18.

Q. Recently Georgia State University President Mark Becker was a guest on WABE’s A Closer Look. My understanding is he was not asked any questions regarding GSU’s controversial partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting giving that network daytime control of student-funded WRAS in direct competition with WABE.

Is this true?

Were any agreements made prior to the interview barring such questions?

A. Closer Look with Rose Scott features the key stories of the day that are relevant to the Atlanta community. It features a mix of local, national and international stories and interviews and provides an interactive space to share ideas and dig deeper into issues. A wide variety of guests are booked independent from each other to provide diverse perspectives and engaging discussions.

When Closer Look had GSU President Mark Becker on, it was part of a broad series of conversations with area colleges and universities. Closer Look periodically talks to the education institutions in the area to find out their latest priorities, challenges and growth opportunities. WRAS was not a topic of discussion based on the programming content for Closer Look that week.

Q. Last summer NPR’s senior Vice President for News Michael Oreskes was also a guest on A Closer Look. He was paired in the interview with the female editor of Georgia State University’s campus newspaper.

The following Oct. Mr. Oreskes resigned from NPR due to inappropriate behavior.

During his WABE appearance, Mr. Oreskes was on Skype and wasn’t in the studio with the student journalist, but he did ask for her resume over the air in a tone that could be considered flirtatious.

Whose idea was the Oreskes/GSU student pairing?

Was WABE aware of the “whisper network” warnings about Mr. Oreskes before the interview?

Such questions take on greater significance given PBA CEO Wonya Lucas’ service on NPR’s national board and her chairing of the committee that looked into management failures regarding Mr. Oreskes’ behavior.

Like the recent interview with Mark Becker, the Oreskes/GSU student appearance on WABE also stood out for its lack of discussion regarding the GPB/GSU partnership.

A. On May 3rd, 2017 it was World Press Freedom Day. Closer Look examined what threatens the freedom of the press in the U.S.. They convened 3 different guests who were booked independently. The 3 guests were NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes, Brandon Benavides, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Christina Maxouris, editor-in-chief of Georgia State’s The Signal. GPB/GSU partnership was not a topic of discussion based on the programming content for Closer Look that week.

No, WABE was not aware of the “whisper network” warnings.

PBA CEO Wonya Lucas was not appointed to the NPR national board until September 2017.

Q. Last June Mr. Oreskes announced a plan to reorganize NPR’s affiliates into regional hubs:

Despite Mr. Oreskes’ departure, an NPR spokesperson tells me the affiliate reorganization is still a goal and is currently in pilot phase in Texas, California and the Gulf. Yet PBA and GPB are engaged in competing billboard and branding campaigns.

What will NPR’s affiliate reorganization mean for public broadcasting in Atlanta and Georgia?

A. NPR’s affiliate reorganization into regional hubs was related to news reporting and doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of public broadcasting in Atlanta and Georgia.

Q. The minutes indicate Craig Lesser is now a board member and was appointed beginning in Jan. of 2017. Mr. Lesser was formerly a board member on GPB’s oversight body the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission, serving throughout the controversial GSU announcement. Appointed by Gov. Deal, who has repeatedly interfered with GPB, Mr. Lesser was then named chair of the commission in 2015.

Doesn’t his service first on one board then another cause a conflict of interest?

A. There was no conflict of interest with Mr. Lesser serving on the PBA board. Mr. Lesser was no longer on the GPB board when he joined the PBA board.

Q. Regarding his service on GPB’s board, public calls were made to fire GPB’s CEO Teya Ryan for unethical conduct and for an investigation into outside political interference at the agency. The board took no such action. Why didn’t Mr. Lesser?

GPB lost increasing amounts of money during that period and suffered layoffs and an IRS investigation into its misuse of freelancers.

Anonymous employee reviews of GPB at GlassDoor complain of out-of-touch leadership, a hostile work environment, ongoing political cronyism, and employee complaints being ignored or covered up.

Was/is Mr. Lesser aware of such complaints? Does he agree with their substance?

What actions did he take regarding GPB’s management culture?

Does he retain confidence in Teya Ryan as CEO of GPB?

Lastly, I’ve long alleged GPB’s acquisition of WRAS was likely a quid pro quo or otherwise related to its agreeing to hire State Senator Chip Rogers on the urging of Gov. Deal. In other words, the secret, back room machinations of Georgia’s Good Old Boy Network. Does Mr. Lesser have any knowledge of GSU and President Mark Becker being pressured or manipulated to partner with GPB?

A. PBA has no knowledge of Mr. Lesser’s thoughts and actions during his tenure at GPB, therefore PBA has no comment.

Taken as a whole these answers suggest PBA is oblivious to prominent people misusing their positions. That they are unwilling to hold public officials accountable and value their financial and political support over editorial independence and integrity.

(Disclosure: Several years ago I applied for a classical music position at Public Broadcasting Atlanta and received a polite “We’ll keep this on file” reply.)

In the spring of 2016 I posted a lengthy Facebook note using the scandals at GPB as a case study in why the general public was losing faith in both politicians and the press.

The backdrop was the populist movements within both political parties that primary season:

The electorate is angry. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s supporters see the system as rigged. Public institutions no longer serve the public interest, only the private ambitions of an unaccountable elite.

Honest men and women, content to live their lives with integrity, get punished while unethical politicians, CEOs and their sycophants lie, cheat and steal their way to the top.

At the time, my main news sources were assuring me Donald Trump would never become president. (I guess that’s what you get for listening to too much public radio.) Despite their expertise, I couldn’t help but sense the growing outrage at our political, business, and media establishments. It was palpable. It’s even more so now.

The disconnect between public radio and the public was disconcerting for a lifetime public radio listener.

This past week WABE aired a story by reporter Johnny Kaufman titled “Atlanta Activist Uses Russian-Backed Media to Spread Message.”

It sparked protests from the subject and criticism from the progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Media. They called the article a McCarthyite smear and linked to WABE’s contact page for complaints.

I’m unfamiliar with Anoa Changa, the activist mentioned in the story, and am suspicious of Russian-backed news sources myself, but find the story problematic for my own, or perhaps related, reasons.

Mr. Kaufman came to WABE from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

So did several other journalists in PBA’s newsroom.

GPB literally is state-funded media.

More than most public broadcasters it receives nearly half its funding from state appropriations and has a politically-appointed governing body.

It even hired a climate-change denying state senator to host a radio show on the order of Gov. Deal.

As GPB faced growing financial shortfalls after its takeover of WRAS payments from the office of Gov. Deal increased.

None of GPB’s former journalists now at Public Broadcasting Atlanta have publicly commented let alone reported on GPB’s cronyism, outside political influence, or financial losses.

To my knowledge, no newsroom in Georgia has reported on GPB’s finances since its last distressing audit.

If the motivations, tactics, and financial backing of black activists are legitimate lines of journalist inquiry, certainly asking such things of the likes of Mark Becker and Craig Lesser are. To let them off the hook seems to make the activists’ case.

In 2015, a year after the GPB partnership began, Mr. Becker was given a massive $500,000 raise making him a millionaire public university president. The funding came from the Georgia State University Foundation “an organization that seeks out private funds to expand university assets.”

The CEO of Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sat on the Foundation Board.

The same day the GSU/GPB partnership was announced, GPB’s CEO Teya Ryan giving an “exclusive interview” to the AJC, the Cox newspaper’s top story was the GSU’s plans to redevelop the former Braves stadium Turner Field.

(The GSU Foundation was also instrumental in the redevelopment planning and financing.)

Previously critical of the GPB’s cronyism, AJC reporters immediately began making appearances on its new radio programs once it acquired WRAS.

The AJC’s chief political columnist Jim Galloway once wrote of GPB as nearing a “recreation of the Soviet Union.”

He’s now a regular panelist on its Political Rewind program chummily discussing politics with the state senators responsible for its funding— and presumably for holding the agency accountable for its financial losses.

But so long as they get uncritical attention….

When politicians and the press get too close the public loses.

Actual fake news (if that isn’t an oxymoron) vs. accusations of fake news, partisan bubbles, politicians bullying the press, the press just typing up what politicians tell them, collapsing newspapers, Sinclair Media and Atlanta reporters just following orders while the Denver Post and NPR’s national journalists call out their management’s misdeeds….

Not to mention pop-up ads and vocal fry.

It’s a difficult time to discern the truth.

Atlanta’s public broadcasters have to start cleaning up their act or risk further damaging the credibility of all of NPR.

Foreign interference is one threat to democracy. So is a culture of corruption.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.