A Fresno man’s bid to serve on a community panel providing input on Valley PBS programming was shot down by the station’s Board of Directors last month, and now he’s asking for an apology over “false statements” made against him.
A Valley PBS board member said the applicant’s past criticisms of the public television station and its programming disqualified him from serving as part of Channel 18’s volunteer advisory group.
The vote on Gunnar Jensen, a longtime radio news and public affairs producer and also a retired educator, and three other applicants by Channel 18’s Board of Directors was a first-time event, according to station insiders.
Jensen and the other three had already been unanimously approved by the Community Advisory Board’s own members, although CAB chairwoman Elizabeth Laval reportedly had abstained on Jensen’s election. Laval is the station’s former Senior Vice President of Content who now runs the Fresno Historical Society.
Cynthia Kanagui and Ruben Alonzo Jr., a married couple from Kern County, and Kings County resident Patricia Lynn Briney easily won approval from the station’s Board of Directors. But when it came time to consider Jensen, Laval talked for a few minutes about his background and also referenced an article Jensen had authored that she had provided to the board.
The Board of Directors’ discussion initially focused on whether Jensen’s inclusion on the community panel would hinder the station’s goal of expanding diversity. Prior to the May 25 vote, seven of eight current CAB members were men, and only one was a person of color. Five were from Fresno County, and the remaining three from Madera County.
Jensen, a white man from Fresno, was being considered for one of the CAB’s vacant at-large seats.
The Community Advisory Board bylaws say the board should number no fewer than eight members and no more than 17, with five from Fresno County, two from each of Madera, Tulare, Kings, and Kern counties, one from Merced County, and three at-large representatives, and that “attempts shall be made” to include representation from the Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native American and white communities.
Similar to Channel 18’s board of directors, the CAB has struggled in recent years to reach full strength, and the four new members who were being introduced to the station’s Board of Directors represented a significant boost in its membership.
‘He’s Written Too Many Op-Eds’
After a discussion about the need for diversity — diversity of race, of hometowns, of careers, and of background — and of the need to “save” vacant at-large seats for people who are not from Fresno, the conversation among the Valley PBS Board suddenly veered from focusing on diversity to focusing on Jensen’s past critiques.
Board member Clint Olivier said flatly that he wouldn’t vote for Jensen.
“I don’t like the person as a member of the CAB. It has nothing to do with the fact of his skin color or his sex. I think he’s written too many op-eds … I think that if this applicant wanted to be helpful to us at PBS, I think that he should have reached out earlier before the machinations. I just think that that disqualifies him and I won’t be voting for him,” Olivier said. ” … I think we need people who are committed to the community, like the first two that I was happy to vote for, whose kids watch PBS. That’s exactly who we want. And just too many machinations, too much behind the scenes sub rosa with the editor of The Bee and yadda yadda.”
Michelle Allison, who formerly served as the Community Advisory Board chairwoman and now is a member of the station’s Board of Directors, questioned whether the concept of diversity should also apply to “diversity of thought.”
“So he has written articles that challenge what we’re doing, and this is an opportunity to bring someone on and help them to understand what really happens here and what goes on,” Allison said. ” … What do you think we’re doing by denying him an opportunity to volunteer to serve?”
However, Allison’s motion to approve Jensen’s CAB membership died for the lack of a second.
Jensen to Olivier: Apologize
Last Friday Jensen followed up the board’s decision with a statement that he was seeking both an apology from Olivier to the board and a correction of the claims that Olivier had made during the meeting that Jensen had failed to reach out to station officials before penning his op-ed pieces, and that he had disparaged station staffers. Neither are true, Jensen says.
As a former TV journalist and “career politician,” Olivier “should know better than to verbally attack, with false statements, a private citizen who has expressed deeply considered concerns about the station’s operation,” Jensen wrote.
“I respectfully ask that Mr. Olivier correct KVPT’s governing board record for the May 25th meeting and apologize to the board for his intemperate remarks. I will also ask that both he and board chairman Jody Graves include a copy of my request in the station’s Federal Communications Commission mandated public file.”
In his prior op-ed pieces Jensen had criticized the station for what he and many others consider one-sided, ag-centric programming, as well as a decision by the station to cut away from broadcasting a portion of the Jan. 6 hearings to air a local program. He maintained that he had attempted to reach out to station officials but was ignored, which led him to submit Valley Voices essays to The Fresno Bee.
The criticisms came as the station already was reeling from the turmoil created when the station leadership changed hands repeatedly over several years and station staffing underwent severe cuts during the early days of the pandemic.
Complaints about the station’s operations may have caught the eye of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Office of the Inspector General, which recently concluded an audit of the station that found Valley PBS had improperly claimed some revenues and was not in compliance with the Federal Communications Commission Act and CPB Transparency requirements.
As a result, Valley PBS has to forgo nearly $300,000 in future community service grants plus pay penalties totaling nearly $39,000 — the first time that had happened in the station’s history. The station receives about $900,000 in community service grants annually on average.
First-Ever Rejection of Community Board Member
But do Community Advisory Board members even need approval from the station’s Board of Directors? Based on past history, that hasn’t been the case, according to current and former station officials who told GV Wire they don’t remember such votes ever taking place before.
Traditionally, new community board members would be introduced by the community board chairperson during a Board of Directors meeting, which would fall under the “review” responsibility that’s spelled out in the CAB’s Bylaws: “Nominations for membership on the CAB shall be made by the CAB nominations committee and voted on by the membership. New members will be reviewed at the following Directors’ Board meeting by the CAB Chair, who also serves as an Ex-Officio member of the Board of Directors.”
The Board of Directors bylaws contain no mention of voting to approve or deny community board membership. When asked about the board’s authority to vote on new CAB members, station staffer Laura Goodreau told GV Wire that the local board is guided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting website.
CPB’s website says the following: “The CAB’s structure and composition, including the number of members, their terms, and method of appointment and removal, should be established by the station’s governing body.”
The website goes on to list the community board’s responsibilities that include: the right to review the station’s programming goals, the service provided by the station, and significant policy decisions made by the station, and the obligation to advise the Board of Directors on whether the station’s programming and other significant policies are meeting “the specialized educational and cultural needs of the communities served by the station, and to make recommendations the CAB deems appropriate to meet such needs.”
CAB Members Under Fire
There apparently was already some unhappiness about the station’s CAB membership even before Jensen was rejected by the Board of Directors last month. Minutes of the board’s Sept. 22, 2022 meeting reported the following: “Jody (Graves), Jeff (station CEO Jeff Aiello) and Elizabeth (Laval) had a meeting yesterday. They are frustrated by some of the behavior of members of the CAB, particularly instigating outside criticism from the Fresno Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle. They will now make sure the CAB become cheerleaders for the station. There will now be consequences for the actions of those who break the code of conduct. Jeff mentions that Valley PBS aired more of the January 6th hearing than any other station, but Valley PBS was accused of cutting it short in the critic’s articles. Elizabeth will shift the role of the CAB members as well as who is allowed to be a CAB member.”
The “outside criticism” they appeared to be referencing was an opinion piece by author Howard Hendrix titled “How right-wing operatives took over my local California PBS station” that was published June 26, 2022 in the Chronicle, and Jensen’s Valley Voices article published in The Bee on Sept. 1 that was titled “Fresno’s public television short-changes viewers on important news for farming shows.”
Jensen wrote another Valley Voices piece published in The Bee on March 14 that was headlined “Valley PBS has a new license. Here is what it needs to become even better.”
It was published two months after Jensen said he was invited to apply to serve in one of the Community Advisory Board’s open seats.
Nine days after Jensen’s second piece was published, the minutes of the March 23 Board of Directors meeting reported that Laval said the CAB “will be using the diversity committee’s mandates to discuss the current nominees.”