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PBS CEO focused on hard decisions to come

The most valuable lesson I learned in college was from a fellow student at SUNY Stony Brook, where I spent my freshman year in 1966-67 before transferring to Syracuse University.

Mark was 15 or 16 years old and from New York City. It wasn't unusual for New York City kids to graduate from high school very young and go directly to college.

One day, Mark sat me down in his room and explained the history of Vietnam for hours.

At the time, I was more than a little naïve, like military veteran Ron Kovic at the start of the 1989 movie "Born on the Fourth of July" starring Tom Cruise. I assumed that America had to be in Vietnam, that it was the right thing to.

After my lengthy lesson from Mark about the folly of being in Southeast Asia, I realized "I know nothing." College is the time to discover you know nothing.

I've forgotten much of the conversation with Mark, but I'm bound to be re-educated in September when PBS carries the new 18-hour Ken Burns project, "The Vietnam War," over two weeks.

I'm expecting it may vilify former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who directed a massive troop buildup that led to more than 58,000 American military personnel dying, and the anti-war movement leading Johnson to not seek the 1968 Democratic nomination for president.

In a wide-ranging interview, Paula Kerger, the president and chief executive officer of PBS suggested Burns' film might surprise me. Kerger, who visited WNED-TV with the PBS Board of Directors this week, thinks vilified might be too strong a word regarding LBJ.

"I don't know if he's vilified," said Kerger, whose understanding of Vietnam as a child came from watching television and seeing the portrayal of Johnson. "This film is going to be extremely important in looking at the war from all different sides. It was a very complicated time.

"I think it will help people to really understand how we got involved. Obviously Johnson is one piece of it. I think also it is very apparent that he was caught. And, from his perspective, there were no good outcomes."

Kerger, who has headed PBS for 11 years, notes that the Vietnam War has obscured some of the legacy of Johnson's Great Society programs, including the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

"All of the Great Society work was lost on me," said Kerger. "It is a broader sweep of legislation that has had huge impact. … So much of his legacy was eclipsed by the war. … I think history will remember him differently than you and I did when we were in our teens and 20s."

Kerger sees Buffalo differently than she did in her visits here over 25 years. She has noticed the redevelopment. The PBS Board, which visits one station a year, came to WNED for multiple reasons: The station serves two different markets – Buffalo and Toronto – is connected to a radio station and also contributes regularly to the PBS national schedule.

"This is a station that is really involved in the community on many different levels," added Kerger. "This was purposely chosen because it is a great station. I think Buffalo is lucky that Canadians are subsidizing the station because I think it makes the station bigger than it would be if wholly reliant on Buffalo. Perhaps this could be a challenge to Buffalonians that this is a great treasure that you have here. And people should step up with their compatriots in Canada and support this great station."

It is strange timing to say the least that the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act is occurring in the same year PBS will be focusing on the war that ended Johnson's presidency and that federal support for PBS is in jeopardy. President Donald Trump's budget calls for gutting funding to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.

The riveting recent "Frontline" program, "Bannon's War," was unlikely to win PBS any friends in the Trump administration. It was a devastating portrait of Steve Bannon, one of the president's key advisers.

Kerger calls the award-winning "Frontline" the PBS series she is most proud of.

Of course, "Frontline" doesn't please everyone. Conservatives feel it is too liberal, one of the reasons that Republicans may want to reject funding for PBS.

"We get hit on both sides," said Kerger. "This is our job. … We can't shift our journalism because we're concerned about the impact it is going to have. If we start shying away from stories because we're worried about blowback, we're done."

The economic and ideological arguments against funding PBS boil down to the belief that cable channels can provide similar educational programming. But Kerger accurately notes that PBS is free over the air and available to people unable to afford cable, many of whom voted for Trump. She added that a recent bipartisan, national poll found that 73 percent of Trump voters would ask the government to look elsewhere to make cuts as opposed to public broadcasting.

"We do have deep support from people who have voted for the president," said Kerger. "Whether we survive will be totally reliant on individual philanthropy, people supporting their local stations and people letting their legislators know how they feel about it."

The biggest losers might be children who grow up on kids' programming and the stations that totally rely on federal funding. Kerger estimates that 80 PBS stations would disappear under a Trump budget, which is bound to be changed by Congress.

WNED wouldn't be in jeopardy but Donald K. Boswell, the WNED president, has said the station's ability to produce national programs would be an issue.

PBS has had to deal with such funding threats from other Republican lawmakers – notably President Nixon and former House speaker Newt Gingrich – and survived because of bipartisan support of lawmakers and support from communities. Kerger said Trump's proposed budget calls for only funding enough money to unwind CPB.

"I always take these threats seriously," said Kerger. "There are a lot of hard decisions to be made out of this budget. Anything can happen. I never assume just because we’ve been successful in the past, we'll be successful this time around."

That's a valuable lesson my college friend Mark taught me about war a half-century ago.

Email: apergament@buffnews.com

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