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Official Resigns Public TV Post

By STEPHEN LABATON
and ELIZABETH JENSEN

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 The top television executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced on Thursday that he would be stepping down. This is the latest in a string of departures of officials and consultants who played central roles in an effort by conservatives to bring what they viewed as more balance to public television and radio.

The executive, Michael Pack, controlled a $70 million production budget and was described by the official who hired him as a conservative Republican. He chose to resign after Patricia S. Harrison, the corporation's new president, forced him to decide between renewing his employment contract and exercising a soon-to-expire option that gives him $500,000 to produce a documentary.

Ms. Harrison said the departures of Mr. Pack and a senior consultant, James Denton, were business decisions and were not part of any purge of ideologically driven officials. "You are connecting dots when there is no connection," she said in an interview. "I have not fired a single person since I came on board here."

But other officials in public broadcasting saw political overtones to the moves. Since being named president of the corporation last June, Ms. Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, has attempted to tamp down a debate over balance in programming that has threatened to undermine financial support for public broadcasting from both Congress and private sources. Public broadcasting officials who had been at odds with the corporation said the personnel changes could shore up support among Republican moderates and Democrats, important traditional allies in budget fights.

"Pat Harrison appears to be trying to ratchet down some of the ideological orientation of the organization," said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations.

"The best thing that C.P.B. can do now is stay out of the spotlight," Mr. Lawson added. "If changes in management at C.P.B. signal to Democrats and Republicans alike that C.P.B. will be nonpartisan and programming decisions will be made on a nonideological basis, that's a very positive development as we go about seeking support from Congress."

The White House this week proposed a cut of more than $100 million, or more than 25 percent, in the corporation's budget.

The corporation has faced tumult since last spring, when it was disclosed that Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was then its chairman, was pressing public broadcasters to correct what he and other conservatives saw as liberal bias. Mr. Tomlinson was forced to resign in November, after the corporation's inspector general found evidence that he had repeatedly broken federal law and the organization's own regulations. He remains the head of a separate agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees most government broadcasting operations abroad. Mr. Pack's departure followed the recent decision by Ms. Harrison not to renew the contract of Mr. Denton, who oversaw one of the corporation's largest projects: a $20 million documentary series called "America at a Crossroads" examining the nation's role in a post-9/11 world. (The New York Times has received financing for one program, "Indonesia: Battleground for the Soul of Islam," as part of that series.)

Mr. Denton, the son of Jeremiah Denton, a conservative Alabama Republican who served in the Senate in the 1980's, was seen by some documentary makers as advancing a conservative political agenda. In an interview, he disputed the complaints that he had sought to bring a conservative bent to programming, calling them "absurd."

Mr. Denton provoked a controversy last year when, at a forum on one of the corporation's largest initiatives, creating projects designed to teach history and civics to teenagers, he suggested to producers that they tell corporate partners the programs could be a "Trojan horse" to get their technology into the schools.

A third official involved in the effort to change the political direction of public broadcasting, William Schulz, submitted his resignation last month. Mr. Schulz, a conservative who once worked with Mr. Tomlinson at Reader's Digest, was one of the two men hired last year to serve as the corporation's ombudsmen, responsible for monitoring the balance of programs. He said in an interview that he had resigned because he had other projects that were interfering with his obligations to the corporation.

In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Ms. Harrison said the personnel moves had "nothing to do with politics or ideology."

"These are business decisions," she said. "It was not in the best interests of the corporation to extend or enhance Michael Pack's option to produce a program."

"In the case of Jim Denton, he did a great job," she added. "His contract was over in December."

Other broadcasting executives said that Ms. Harrison had heard complaints from producers that the "America at a Crossroads" and history and civics projects have moved too slowly and been disorganized.

Among other programming moves, he helped bring to public television a show featuring The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial board and another whose host was Tucker Carlson, the conservative commentator.

Mr. Pack called "America at a Crossroads" "a good example of the way to bring diversity of views to public broadcasting across the political spectrum." With new voices and a mix of cultural and political topics, he said, "I hope it will be a model for how to bring a true diversity of opinion and in some ways get out of the left-right box."

Stephen Labaton reported from Washington for this article and Elizabeth Jensen from New York.

 

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