The Blurred Lines Between a State-Funded Public Broadcaster and State Media

After seeing this tweet posted by the account Free Public Media in the weeks before Georgia’s close elections, I emailed Gov. Kemp’s spokesman and several other state officials, including Republican and Democratic leaders in the state legislature, asking for comment. About the tweet itself and related scandals at GPB.

More than most NPR or PBS affiliates, GPB receives over 40% of its funding from state appropriations. Moreover, its oversight Commission members are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate.

None of the state officials I emailed replied.

That may be understandable given my lack of press credentials. And perhaps my last name. Just an Atlanta comedian with Asperger’s who took an obsessive interest in media issues.

But questions about political control and interference at GPB seemed important at the time, given Georgia’s significance in national politics.

After the election, lawsuits, calls for a special session backed by numerous state legislators, the close Senate runoffs, and ongoing political fallout, the unanswered questions still seem important.

A new legislative session is underway. Changes to election laws are being pushed. Divisions within the state’s Republican party include calls for primary challenges against Gov. Brian Kemp and others.

And Democrat Stacey Abrams is expected to announce another run for governor later this year.

So, is Georgia Public Broadcasting properly insulated from political pressure or a plaything of political leaders in the state?

Is it independent enough to hold elected officials, let alone the state’s powerful business leaders, accountable?

Or is GPB closer to a state ministry charged with promoting and protecting the state’s image?

I also submitted Open Records Requests to the governor’s office for correspondence between it and GPB for the period of Sept., Oct. and Nov.

Those were responded to under Georgia’s open records act.

The bulk of the e-mails related to a 3D tour of the Governor’s mansion filmed by GPB and a video the First Lady narrated. It was under the auspices of GPB’s education department and as part of efforts to promote and highlight online resources.

Similar perhaps to PBS’ “Christmas at the White House” or “A Capital Fourth” specials.

Still, the discourse has a state media feel to it.

A single e-mail from the Gov.’s Communications Director is intriguing. It asks about GPB filming near Satilla Shores and notes complaints from residents.

Satilla Shores is the area in coastal Georgia where Ahmaud Arbery was killed. There was no response or further related conversation included in the documents.

Emails to both Gov. Kemp’s office and GPB asking about the email and whether the Glynn County project was halted or altered in any way at the request of the governor’s office were not returned.

Soon after the mansion tour project was completed, GPB CEO Teya Ryan sought a one-on-one meeting with Gov. Kemp.

The response was a polite deferral until later by the acting chief of staff.

Ryan has been at GPB since Gov. Sonny Perdue’s administration.

A former CNN executive, she has staffed GPB with several of her former colleagues from the commercial, cable network instead of those with strong public broadcasting backgrounds.

Under Perdue’s successor Gov. Nathan Deal, she agreed to hire Georgia’s Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers for a $150,000 job.

All current members of the Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission were appointed by Deal, and almost all were appointed or reappointed late in Deal’s term.

Their confirmation by the state Senate came in a special session held after the 2018 election.

There was speculation at the time that had Stacey Abrams or other statewide Democrats won, Deal and Republicans in the legislature might have used the special session to push through changes to curb their power.

Gov. Kemp has yet to make any Commission appointments himself and his office has not responded to multiple emails asking about GPB’s financial losses, lax Commission oversight, or his continued support for its CEO.

Partisan politics should theoretically be a check on state agencies, but prominent state Democrats also use GPB for their own frequent media appearances and have demanded little accountability from its CEO or Commission.

While Georgia flipped to Joe Biden and elected two Democratic Senators in an extended runoff, each of those races was close and all statewide offices and both houses of the state legislature are under Republican control.

Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue regularly criticized the liberal media as part of their campaigns. Often on national Fox News appearances from its Atlanta bureau inside Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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