The first two completed shows went to Ted Turner in October, despite Pat Mitchell’s promise that funders never saw shows in advance. Wussler reported that Ted Turner loved what he saw. PBS however did not. Pat Mitchell told Wussler she didn’t like what she saw. I never got any specific notes from Pat, however. Wussler said Pat wanted a much more domestic and less international show. So much for Ted Turner’s request to be “international, international, international,” as I pointed out and Wussler agreed.
I didn’t take Pat’s comments too seriously. She had been our senior executive at Turner Broadcasting when we produced People Count. She didn’t like that show either until it won an Environmental Media Award,
PBS hired Pat in 2000, apparently wanting to get someone outside of the Public Broadcasting tent. A few weeks before she took the job, I bumped into her at a Hilton Head Renaissance Weekend where we both appeared on the same panels. I congratulated her on her appointment and urged her to hire assistants who knew the public television system from the inside. It was an arcane, somewhat mysterious organization that could be hostile to outsiders. The traditional skills of the corporate world might not work.
I had been to several PBS conferences in the mid eighties, when I produced Hodding Carter’s series on the press, Inside Story. The atmosphere at those conferences was almost academic, a group of college administrators mixing with their brighter, more creative students. A speech was a talk among colleagues. Pat’s performance in the 2002 PBS annual convention was from a commercial universe of coiffed hair, camera makeup, dramatic lighting and a wireless mike that allowed her prowl the stage like a rock star. All the rehearsed enthusiasms seemed sad to me, as if Public Television were simply another Wal-Mart pitch for a new store.
Pat became PBS’s chief executive when the right wing attack on Public Broadcasting, which had continued since its inception, reached a new high under the Bush administration. She apparently wanted to mollify the attackers by moving PBS to the right. Her second in command, Coby Atlas, warned me at a PBS national convention, “We don’t want another Bill Moyers.” Moyers, Lyndon Johnson’s former press secretary and a long-time PBS broadcaster has been called “the conscience of journalism,” and he was a lightning rod for right wing attacks at PBS.
I didn’t take Coby or Pat’s comment too seriously, because Ted Turner was paying for the series. He liked what we were doing so far. I expected his full support. I had no idea that our editorial positions were in any serious trouble until the very end. As late as December 30th, 2002, Jeff Bieber emailed me as follows: “I screened the 4th show. It was very good. Although the pieces were a bit long (knowing it is a rough cut) they were the best written segments … perhaps not as gripping vis a vis dramatic storylines, but quite coherent and well thought out.”
Marty Schram emailed me on January 5th, 2003, “Yes! This Homeland Security piece will do exactly what we need it to do for the show. It’s amazing that this so closely parallels what I’d written as a way of opening the Book’s 4th section. Complete with Nunn’s quote and Tenet’s. This makes it clear from the outset that our fourth show is part of the series – and as we build to the more cerebral connections with the rest of the pieces, it will be clear that they flow, one from the other – and that our fourth show is a grand finale that flows from the first three.”
My Third Meeting With Ted
I had my third and final meeting with Ted Turner on January 14th. I was interviewing him for the Avoiding Armageddon web site, in his large office in a building he owns in downtown Atlanta. You can see the CNN logo out his window. Turner was in great form. He referred to the nuclear weapons that Russia and the US still have aimed at each other, on thirty second alert, as “ rattlesnakes, under your dining room table, coiled up and ready to strike.”
Turner explained why he decided to put his money into the series. He said he wanted to make “an investment in the future of humanity. You know, my race, my family, and my friends. I love this planet and the birds and the animals. I mean, I want to see the environment preserved and I want to see the human race preserved. And I’d like to see everybody living decently in a more – on a more equitable, kind-hearted, thoughtful, generous world. That’s why I did it.”
If I had known I was about to be fired, I would have used my time with Ted Turner to ask him specifically to endorse the editorial direction of the series and to support the production team if we came under attack. It never even occurred to me.