Sorry, we let you down," said Corporation for Public Broadcasting President Robert Coonrod to public television viewers nationwide last week.
With that apology, he quickly shifted into damage control, seeking to assure viewers and donors that public television stations had learned their lesson and intended, henceforth, to be open and forthcoming on the issue of mailing lists.
"Our only goal is to help restore public trust in the work you and we do everyday," he said in an open letter to station managers. "That trust has been shaken. We must be clear in our intent to revitalize the confidence listeners and viewers vest in the public service we offer."
WORLD decided to test that commitment with surprise visits to two of public broadcasting's flagship stations: WETA in Washington, D.C., and WGBH in Boston.
WETA occupies almost an entire, recently constructed, six-story office building in the trendy Washington suburb of Shirlington. Classical music bounces off the two-story glass atrium and polished granite floor.
Before coming over, I called to ask what type of information might be available. Mary Stewart, director of communications, tells me there are several three-ring binders full of information on the list swaps-obviously too much to copy or fax. On my way over, I call from the car, to see if Mary can see me. She's in a meeting. Guess I'll just have to wait.
I arrive at 12:15. The guard calls up and informs me that Mary will be right down. Moments later, the plan has changed. He asks me to pick up a house phone and call extension 2450. Someone named Michelle informs me that Ms. Stewart is unavailable. "She must be out of the office," she adds helpfully.
That's funny, I reply. When I called five minutes ago, she was in a meeting.
Long pause. "The guard must have been mistaken about that."
I don't think so. Someone in Ms. Stewart's office told me about the meeting, not the guard.
Longer pause. "Well, maybe that person was mistaken. I can't find her now."
That's fine, I'll just wait in the lobby.
Michelle sputters a bit. "I have to tell you, I don't know her schedule, and no one else does either. She doesn't have an assistant. I really can't say when she'll be back."
No problem, I repeat. I'll be waiting in the lobby. A note of resignation creeps into her voice. "So you'll be in the lobby? Downstairs? Um ... OK."
Workers stream through the lobby en route to lunch. Mostly they're chic young women showing off lots of leg in their mini-skirted suits, mixed in with the occasional granola type in Birkenstocks and T-shirt.
All the lunch-going reminds me how hungry I am. The large-screen TV in the lobby is showing some sort of cooking demonstration utilizing chocolate wafers and Cool Whip. My kind of lunch. My stomach starts growling.
An hour later, there's still no sign of Ms. Stewart. Mr. Johnson, the security guard, seems sympathetic, but two phone calls yield nothing. Evidently, no one in the building knows where the director of communications might be.
I watch Mr. Johnson dial Ms. Stewart's extension, making a mental note. 2830. Half an hour later, I try it myself. The woman on the other end of the line seems startled that I've reached her directly. Is she Ms. Stewart's assistant, I want to know? Can she tell me when her boss might get back from lunch? Does she have any meetings on her schedule for this afternoon?
"I'm just a temp," the nervous voice informs me. No, she really can't say when Ms. Stewart might be back, and she doesn't know about meetings "or any of that stuff."
I ask whom else I might speak to in the Communications Office. "I don't know where anyone is," Ms. Temporary Assistant informs me. Apparently the entire department takes lunch at precisely the same time, leaving the poor temp all alone in the office with no idea of their whereabouts. She offers to have someone call down to me in the lobby just as soon as she can find someone. She seems relieved when I say "OK" to that and let her off the line.
Five minutes later, Mary Stewart herself appears in the lobby. She doesn't ask me up to her office, or even bother with the usual pleasantries like "Nice to meet you." Instead, she informs me that she doesn't appreciate the way I've been harassing her temporary assistant with six phone calls in two hours. She even accuses me of "stalking" her. "I'm very accessible," she insists. "I've been widely quoted on this. All you have to do is call."
I point out that I'm not looking for a quote; I'm looking for data. I want to go over those three-ring binders full of information about the station's donor lists.
Sorry, she says. The person who would have to give her permission to show me that data is out of town.
I suggest that she doesn't need permission, since she already has a mandate to release the information. From my briefcase, I pull out a copy of CPB's new policy on mailing lists. The policy was formulated just last week, amidst all the hoopla about public broadcasting and the public trust. I point out the relevant passage:
"[A]ll grantees of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, must maintain complete and accurate records of all uses of membership and donor lists for fundraising purposes, and must furnish such records on request."
Suddenly Ms. Stewart looks like a deer caught in the headlights. "I'll have to check with our counsel to get his interpretation of this paragraph," she says as she stands. I object that the one-sentence paragraph doesn't leave much room for interpretation. "I'll have to check with counsel," she repeats, as if afraid to say anything further.
She's back in 15 minutes. She couldn't find the counsel, but she's going to check with "our friends at CPB" to see what they say about the new policy. "I'll be in touch," she says, handing me her card and motioning me toward the door. "I have to get back to my two o'clock meeting."
I'm clearly being dismissed, but I don't mind. It's time to get to Boston to see how WGBH, the grandaddy of public television stations, is doing at implementing CPB's new policy of openness and honesty.
First, I make the obligatory phone calls. Spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins sounds tired, and more than a little wary. "Unfortunately I'm not familiar with your publication," she begins, searching for a clue as to how hostile the questions might be.
When I ask about reports that her station shared its mailing lists with liberal advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and Handgun Control, Inc., she quickly becomes as defensive as her colleague in Washington.
"I'm not sure that's accurate for us," she replies. "In having looked through the list of organizations that we dealt with, for the most part they're child welfare groups, social service organizations like homeless shelters, lots of arts groups, that kind of thing."
Oh, so she has a list? May I see it for myself?
She doesn't have a list, she replies.
I remind her that she just said she'd looked over it.
But it's not a complete list, she says, only a portion.
I'm feeling agreeable, so I tell her that's fine, I'd be satisfied with the portion.
"We've given the information to Price Waterhouse," she says, referring to the accounting firm hired to conduct a review of WGBH's mailing-list policy.
"Really?" I press her. "Price Waterhouse has the only list and no one in your entire building kept a copy?"
With that, I get a lecture on the "ongoing investigation" and how WGBH will make a "full report" when all the information is in.
So I play my ace in the hole, reading her the relevant paragraph on disclosure from CPB's new policy. She insists the paragraph refers to sharing information with CPB, not with the public or the media.
Once again, public television goes all-out to restore its "bond of trust" with the public. Oh well, I tell her, I'd at least like to drop by and get her station's Form 990. "I'll see you in a few minutes," I say as I hang up.
But I never do see her. When I arrive at WGBH's sprawling, bunker-like campus next to the venerable Harvard Business School, I'm once again not invited up to anyone's office. I wait for Ms. Hopkins in the lobby, but instead I get a big, affable fellow who introduces himself as the station's controller. (Perhaps my reputation as a stalker has preceded me.) He hands me the forms, shakes my hand, and tells me to call him if I have any questions. I try calling Ms. Hopkins from the lobby to ask once more for the mailing-list records, but she's unavailable.
Jeannie Bunton, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokeswoman, is always available, so I call to tell her about my adventures in Washington and Boston. Shouldn't these stations be forthcoming with their information, under the new policy? "That seems to be something that the stations would decide to do themselves," she says with a sigh. "Public broadcasting is a very decentralized, organic public service, and decisions about local operations are determined in that local community."
I point out that CPB just came out with a five-page policy on mailing lists, so obviously they do have some say. I simply want to know how this policy is going to be interpreted and enforced. Would CPB encourage local stations to reveal their mailing-list records?
"Sure," says Ms. Bunton.
"Great," I reply. Would she please call WETA and WGBH and "encourage" them to give me the information I asked for?
Uh, no. "They have to do what they think is in their best interest," she concludes.
I want to object that the stations are supposed to serve the public interest, but Ms. Bunton is already rhapsodizing about the future. "We've moved on. We've solved the problem. We're moving forward. We're focusing every day on education. How we can enrich the lives of children. How we can help adult learners. How we can make public broadcasting part of this new media world."
All this, of course, "made possible by the support of viewers like you."
Just don't ask too many questions.