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Losing the public trust

With all the talk of openness, why is public broadcasting suddenly so fearful of going, well, public?

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

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."

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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."

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