The electorate is angry. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s supporters see the system as rigged. Public institutions no longer serve the public interest, only the private ambitions of an unaccountable elite. Honest men and women, content to live their lives with integrity, get punished while unethical politicians, CEOs and their sycophants lie, cheat and steal their way to the top. In Georgia, nowhere is the incestuous relationship between the political, corporate and media establishments more obscene than at the statewide public broadcaster. Through shameless cronyism, corruption and contempt for public opinion, Georgia Public Broadcasting has descended from a dull but dutiful PBS and NPR affiliate to a private Downton Abbey run by and for the state’s own aristocracy.
Interactive Timeline of Georgia Public Broadcasting Takeover and examples of Corruption and Cronyism
The Political Establishment and Georgia Public Broadcasting
With nearly half its funding coming from state appropriations, appeasing state politicians has long been a part of GPB’s mission. When in session, state legislators receive nightly coverage on a show with the Mosaic title Lawmakers. It features excerpts from speeches, non-confrontational interviews and “get to know them” profiles. Investigative reporting or holding the powerful accountable has never been an emphasis.
The network’s headquarters was a boondoggle when built. Filled with all the latest equipment and sure to impress a camera-seeking politician, it was also far beyond the network’s ability to produce original programming–GPB has never been WGBH. When not sitting vacant, the extra studio space is rented out to commercial production companies. That masterpiece of modern theatre Paternity Court currently films there.
In 2013, any semblance of political independence was shattered when GPB hired a state senator on the order of the Governor. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers had become a political liability for state Republicans so Gov. Nathan Deal asked GPB’s CEO Teya Ryan, the former head of CNN, to hire him. Rogers left his political office for a vaguely-defined position with the well-defined salary of $150,000. When this amount was leaked, a veteran GPB producer resigned in disgust and public outrage grew.
Despite protests and canceled pledges from the public, GPB’s leadership and politically-appointed oversight board did nothing to stop this blatant cronyism, showing the courage in the face of corruption Georgia’s leaders consistently lack. Rogers remained at GPB until Gov. Deal’s 2014 reelection looked vulnerable.
The Corporate Establishment and Georgia Public Broadcasting
The radio show Rogers hosted and its accompanying blog, titled Georgia Works, were to promote economic development, cheerleading for Georgia businesses and for Gov. Deal. GPB’s transition to an unquestioning establishment mouthpiece was going full steam.
Under Republican Governors, its oversight body had been packed with CEOs and political contributors who sought to run it like a commercial broadcaster and, under Ryan, purged long-term employees. Arts programming was dropped, high school football was added.
Increasingly, state agencies and business lobbies became program underwriters. Fittingly, Georgia’s Lawmakers are currently underwritten entirely by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. (Though the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 applies to most employers, Georgia’s minimum wage of $5.15 an hour ties with Colorado as the lowest in the nation. It has stood, squatted might be a better word, at that level since 2002.)
The Media Establishment and Georgia Public Broadcasting
Most other major media outlets in Georgia covered the Chip Rogers hiring vigorously, using open records requests to reveal Gov. Deal’s orchestration of the cronyism, tracking down and embarrassing a state lawmaker as he hid behind an office printer, and continuing to follow the story lest those involved simply wait the bad publicity out. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s top political reporter even compared GPB to a Soviet-era propaganda service.
No such vigilance followed GPB’s next big scandal. A month after Chip Rogers was finally let go, again on the order of Gov. Deal’s office, a secret, back room deal emerged allowing GPB to place its own radio programming on Georgia State University’s legendary college station WRAS during peak daytime listening hours. This major change in a student-funded organization was announced to students, there was no student or public input, during finals week as the campus was emptying out for the summer.
It was also a shameless power grab by GPB and state leaders hoping to steal audience members, pledges and influence from Atlanta’s independent NPR affiliate WABE.
The move further outraged the public, particularly when it was learned that GPB and GSU had been secretly planning the move while asking Georgia State students to fund an expensive new digital transmitter for WRAS without revealing that an outside, non-student entity would be using it most of the day.
The AJC let its radio reporter, more a local celebrity columnist than investigative journalist, cover the story which he did in lackluster fashion. No open records requests, intermittent follow up, and no tough interviews with GPB or GSU officials. (In an interview with Lawmakers host Bill Nigut about his new vanity radio program to feature happy, chirpy interviews with Establishment-approved artists, chefs and millionaires, a GPB publicist was allowed to sit in and control the questioning.)
Once GPB on WRAS premiered, AJC reporters began making regular appearances to promote their own stories. The same chief political columnist who once called the network a latter-day Pravda, became a weekly guest on Nigut’s other new political discussion show.
Protests continued and, in a role reversal that should have embarrassed all of Atlanta’s press corps, fans of the college station had to do the investigating while journalists, especially the ones at GPB, did nothing.
At a contentious meeting of GPB’s oversight body in January of 2015, SaveWRAS activists presented evidence of Teya Ryan using a personal e-mail account to conduct GPB/GSU deal making–in violation of open records law–and demanded her dismissal. The board, some of the richest and most prominent citizens in the state, did nothing. Again.
The AJC never covered the January board meeting or calls for Ryan’s dismissal. My own open records request shows the AJC in partnership talks with GPB at the same time and eager to place its own branded programming on WRAS.
(The AJC is owned by Cox Media Group which also owns WSB television, Bill Nigut’s former employer, and six radio stations in Atlanta including News/Talk stations WSB AM and FM.)
Other media outlets in the state were also eager to get their reporters on GPB and partner with it. None seemed to want to hold one of their own to account.
In other words, Georgia’s media establishment wanted WRAS for themselves. So much so they were willing to overlook the public corruption involved in stealing it from the students who fund it.
In this triumvirate of establishment inbreeding, GPB’s current board chair is like something out of Deliverance. A former talk radio host on WSB, he left commercial radio to become an executive at Georgia Power, then a corporate lobbyist, then head of the state’s Department of Economic Development with the proud title of Chief Marketing Officer–Propaganda Minister must not have tested well.
Expecting him or his similarly well-connected board members to demand integrity, transparency and accountability from the scandal-plagued agency they oversee is expecting too much.
Despite assurances that GPB on WRAS would use no taxpayer dollars but would be solely funded by increased pledges and underwriting from the Atlanta market, low ratings, an omnipresent billboard campaign and dramatic increase in the number of TV pledge drives suggest WABE’s Board Chair Dr. Louis Sullivan’s warning that GPB on WRAS was “bad public policy” and a “waste of Georgia’s tax dollars” was correct.
A state audit for the fiscal year ending last June shows a negative net position of $2,000,000. Low level employees have been laid off while the Lawmakers’ favorite Bill Nigut and Ryan’s old friend from CNN Bobbi Batista got salary boosts. (As did Ryan.)
Yet no state politician, of either party, has demanded answers and GPB’s board asked no financial questions at its July meeting. Since assuming the chairmanship, the Cox radio veteran and Georgia Republican Party operative now in charge of oversight has offered no public comments. And no major media outlet in Georgia has asked.
This is typical of Georgia’s plutocracy. When the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal emerged, a blue ribbon commission was appointed to investigate. They found the system’s leadership, including Superintendent Beverly Hall, a favorite of the business community, to be without fault.
A state investigation and successful racketeering prosecution by the local District Attorney showed otherwise. Finally, corrupt leadership in Georgia received some long-awaited blame.
In 2014 the Woodruff Arts Center locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the second time in two years. WAC’s leaders only relented after bad press in London and New York made the city’s elite look like hicks and philistines. Soon after the lockout ended the Woodruff Foundation swooped in with generous contributions and a vote of confidence in the same leadership that had just treated its own musicians like dirt. Again.
Most farcical of all Georgia corruption scandals are those surrounding its Ethics Commission. One Executive Secretary was fired after a judge fined her $10,000 for unethical conduct. She had withheld evidence in a case involving the wrongful termination of a previous Executive Secretary. That and other lawsuits by ousted employees resulted in the state paying millions of dollars in fines and settlements for its unethical treatment of employees in its Ethics Commission. All because they dared to investigate ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal. They dared to do their job.
As a reward for doing his bidding, Gov. Deal wrote a letter sponsoring the unethical head of the Ethics Commission for membership in the Georgia Chamber’s leadership training initiative.
The message being sent to average citizens is clear: honesty and integrity get you fired; lying, cheating and stealing get you membership in Leadership Georgia.
To be a so-called “high achiever” in a kleptocracy ought to be a mark of shame; but Georgia’s aristocracy increasingly has none.
It’s Board of Regents is, a Good ‘Ol Boy Oligarchy whose members include a former Chief of Staff to a segregationist Senator, Gov. Deal’s longtime campaign treasurer, and a liquor distributor the University of Georgia’s student paper noted has a “shameful and reckless pattern of conduct”
In 2012 they named a University after themselves. The merged Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences Universities became Georgia Regents University. Such self-aggrandizement outraged Augusta citizens and brought an infringement claim from Regent University in Virginia but was pushed through anyway and was only rescinded last Sept.
An appeal to the Regents by students outlining the disgusting behaviour of GSU and GPB officials and the misappropriation of student funds involved in the theft of WRAS was filed in March of 2015 but has gone completely unanswered.
The Regents did see fit to approve a whopping half million dollar raise for GSU’s President Mark Becker a year after the theft of WRAS. The raise is funded by the GSU Foundation whose members, another Who’s Who of CEOs, include Cox Enterprises’ head John M. Dyer–another conflict of interest Cox Media’s AJC has never disclosed in its coverage of WRAS or Mark Becker.
This Feb. a defensive Board of Regents announced there’d be no tuition increase in 2016-2017 after annual increases since 2002–the same year Georgia’s minimum wage was apparently set in stone.
The anger growing this election year is palpable. It’s also justified.
Wall St. got bailed out while Main St. went bankrupt. And now, in Georgia, Sesame St. is stealing lunch money from college kids. Boss Hogg could do no worse.
This article was a guest editorial written by Brian Bannon