Essay — From the October 2014 issue

PBS Self-Destructs

And what it means for viewers like you

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Last October, I watched as a passel of activists convened in front of WGBH, Boston’s public-television station. There were about three dozen of them on the concrete forecourt, many in matching T-shirts layered against the chill, but one middle-aged man wore a ministerial robe and clerical collar. Another activist of uncertain gender waved at passersby from the innards of an Elmo costume, which looked as though it had made one too many trips to the dry cleaners. WGBH employees, as well as cameramen and reporters on hand to cover the protest, weaved through the crowd.

The grassroots climate-change group Forecast the Facts had organized the rally as an attempt to expel David Koch from the station’s board of trustees. The members had collected and printed out 120,000 digital signatures and placed them in boxes, which they planned to present at that afternoon’s board meeting. (The trustees had already agreed to take delivery.) In the interim, they made brief speeches, mostly for the benefit of the reporters, since the studio’s location overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike precluded much in the way of foot traffic.

Illustrations by Thomas Allen

Illustrations by Thomas Allen

The very presence of protesters at a public-television station felt inordinately strange — an impression abetted by Elmo, the minister, and the building itself, a futuristically mirrored slab that seemed to have escaped from a Silicon Valley office park. The speakers took turns at a microphone rigged to a small PA system. They denounced the evildoings of Koch Industries. They expressed disbelief that an oil tycoon known for his disdain of climate-change science could be allowed anywhere near the station, which is not only the jewel in the crown of PBS but also the producer of NOVA, the longest-running science show in existence. How could a founding member of the Cato Institute — a conservative think tank that has argued vigorously against federal funding for PBS — be given the chance to destroy public television from within?

The speakers’ voices brimmed with feeling. They sounded angry, perplexed, determined — and above all, hurt. As they passed the microphone back and forth, Elmo waggled a placard with a pithy message scrawled in black marker:

elmo love wgbh
elmo no love koch lies

At the appointed hour, the group (minus Elmo) filed into the lobby and formed an orderly line at the welcome desk. Excited speculation about Koch’s attendance burbled through the crowd. Would he show up? Could we sense his presence? What happens to those who gaze upon the face of purest evil?

An uncomfortable silence descended as we entered the elevator. We walked into the boardroom, a pleasingly anodyne space, and took our seats in folding chairs that had been set up near the door. We eyed the trustees, a well-heeled lot in understated business attire seated around a big table. None looked especially distraught or even agitated. Koch wasn’t there.

* The print version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the leader of Forecast the Facts' October protest. He is Brad Johnson, not Brant Olson.

The big man’s absence had a palpably deflating effect. Brad Johnson,* the organization’s campaign director, and Fred Small, the minister, reprised their complaints with less vigor than before. Board chairman Amos Hostetter thanked them, then delivered some prepared remarks enumerating all the reasons why David Koch would remain on the board regardless of his political affiliations. Ten minutes later, we left the way we came in.

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