Asked by Downtown in 1991 what was the relationship between MacNeil-Lehrer Productions and PBS’s NewsHour, MacNeil-Lehrer Productions’ then-spokesperson, Christopher Ramsey, said that “MacNeil-Lehrer Productions produces the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and WNET co-produces it.” Ramsey also noted in 1991 that his MacNeil-Lehrer Productions company produced other programs besides the PBS evening news, such as a PBS series on the English language and a series featuring the Surgeon General which NBC broadcasted.
Asked by Downtown in 1991 if the NewsHour was then involved in a relationship with Time-Warner, Ramsey answered affirmatively and noted that the relationship with Time magazine involved photo access and purely journalistic concerns.
Asked by Downtown how he would respond to critics who felt that there was a conflict-of-interest involved in the publicly-funded MacNeil-Lehrer Productions operating as a commercial venture, Ramsey questioned whether any such critics exist and said:
“All of the producers on PBS are independent contractors. And all the programs are contracted. There’s nothing wrong with a production company for public television making some small profit like any other business. Otherwise, you become dependent on just one funding source.”
Asked how he would respond to those critics of public broadcasting who worry about the dangers of “clandestine commercialism” within the public broadcasting system, Ramsey replied:
“That’s part of a much broader issue. We don’t have any kind of pure public broadcasting system in the United States. Maybe some commercialism can be avoided elsewhere. But even in the BBC they pay a salary or contract out on the basis of a production fee that insures a fair and reasonable profit to program producers.”
Downtown then asked Ramsey how he’d respond to critics of public broadcasting who argue that commercial funding of the NewsHour leads to commercial editorial control.
“We have a line in the sand drawn between our corporate funders and our editorial decisions. Corporate funders like AT&T have never tried to influence our program,” Ramsey said.
When Downtown noted that some people felt that the NewsHour doesn’t report on issues involving AT&T because AT&T funds the program, Ramsey replied in 1991:
“We’ve done quite a lot on AT&T. I can show you the transcripts of many programs on AT&T.”
Downtown then asked Ramsey whether he could recall if the NewsHour had ever done a show about the Gannett Company?
“I can’t off the top of my head. But Gannett is a low-profile company. And we tend to focus on issues of public policy and are less involved with issues related to companies like Gannett.”
Next: Corporate Influence On Public Broadcasting Historically—Part 3
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