Public Media: American Stories of Service

Remarks by Patricia Harrison
President and CEO, Corporation for Public Broadcasting​
PBS Annual Meeting, CPB Lunch Program
Public Media: American Stories of Service
San Diego, CA
May 17, 2017

Good afternoon. It is so wonderful to be in San Diego for the PBS Annual Meeting.

No wonder Tom Karlo is such a happy person—He gets to live here every day.

Cold or not, a great place to be. So, congratulations to Tom, KPBS, Paula Kerger and PBS for a wonderful Annual Meeting: the largest, I believe, in PBS history. Congratulations to all of you for being here. 

I also want to thank our CPB Board Chair Lori Gilbert and Board members Dr. Judith Davenport and Liz Sembler for being here with us as well. Their strong support for public media is very appreciated. And appreciation as well to our incomparable CPB Senior Vice President, Corporate Secretary, Chief of Staff Teresa Safon for her leadership. And happy birthday, Steve Altman!

Today we want to celebrate the power of public media storytelling. But first, there’s a story I want to share with you. Last Saturday, I was among a group of men and women honored at Ellis Island with the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom. It was quite an emotional experience to be there with so many first, second and third generation Americans of different races and heritage. I had the opportunity to talk about the person who really deserved the Medal: my Grandfather, Charles Distazio, who came to this country at the age of sixteen, from Italy; eventually met and married my grandmother; owned a barbershop; became the unofficial mayor of Bay Ridge and mentored the young people who came in to get a haircut, always giving them the same advice: “Don’t be stupid. Stay in school. Don’t be a dropout.” And then he would help them stay in school.

He achieved the American dream for himself and his family. And many decades later, here I was, speaking to this group of honorees and dignitaries, their friends and families, standing in the same place where my grandfather first experienced America.

I told them that I was so fortunate to be part of public media, where we are dedicated to telling the increasingly diverse stories of all Americans, including those who are new to America and appreciate so much the freedoms we have. And I was able to tell them we’re also dedicated to telling the stories of our men and women in uniform, who put their lives on the line to protect those freedoms. 

We have a powerful storytelling and knowledge infrastructure which begins with local content connected to your communities, paired with programs such as Frontline, American Experience and American Masters; the films of Stanley Nelson, Ken Burns, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Bernardo Ruiz; stories that take us on a journey across the universe made possible by Nature and NOVA; and the diversity of stories provided through the talented filmmakers of ITVS and the Minority Consortia, POV, WORLD, stories that inspire and encourage lifelong learning and hope. Through American Graduate: all of those kids, many first-generation Americans, striving to get their high school diploma, that long home stretch to graduation. Stories that inform through local and regional news through PBS Newshour and NPR’s fact-based journalism, important locally, nationally and internationally.

The stories we tell matter, affirming the ideals that hold us together as a democracy, as a civil society, connecting us to one another in ways that increase mutual understanding, respect, encouraging aspiration and achievement. My grandfather, like so many immigrants today, believed that if he worked hard and smart, one day he would achieve the American Dream. The idea of that attainable goal has been part of our American story from the very beginning. But what about today? Is that “American Dream” still attainable? WNET has launched an online platform for its “Chasing the Dream” initiative, where you can calculate your chances of achieving the American Dream. But “chasing the dream” raises the question: What are the values that connect us, hold us together as a people and a nation?

These were the questions Pulitzer-prize historian and Democrat David Kennedy and former Secretary of State and Republican Condoleezza Rice asked when they collaborated on a new documentary called “American Creed.” Now, American Creed is still being developed and is actually embargoed for press releases and social media at this time. But CPB wanted to share a special preview of this film, co-produced and presented by WTTW and Citizen Films, and directed by Sam Ball who is with us today. We believe it will be both compelling and powerful storytelling, because Kennedy and Rice wanted to look at our country beyond red state, beyond blue state; beyond the military-civilian divide; to listen to a diverse group of Americans and understand from their point of view, “What does it mean to be an American in terms of civic participation, aspiration and community?” What is the real meaning of an “American Creed” in today’s fractured society? According to the late Gunnar Myrdal, Nobel Prize honoree who studied American attitudes and beliefs, at the heart of the American Creed is an abiding sense that every person, regardless of circumstances, deserves fairness and the opportunity to realize unlimited potential.

Please watch.

[American Creed video]

Tegan Griffith, who you just saw briefly in the film, joined the military when she was 21 after her father was deployed to Iraq. Both Tegan and her brother enlisted in the US Marine Corps where she served on active duty as an Aircraft Maintenance Administration Specialist in Iraq with a Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 (that’s a really big deal). When she returned to the United States, she was promoted to Sergeant where she was responsible for training new Marines. After her honorable discharge from the Marines she returned to Wisconsin, where she serves as an Outreach Specialist on behalf of Wisconsin veterans.  

The story of her journey as a Marine Sergeant to civilian is told in the book “Soul Survivors: Stories of Wounded Women and the Battles They Fight Long After They’ve Left the War Zone”.  Tegan was also featured as part of Wisconsin Public Television’s Veterans Coming Home project.

Please welcome Sergeant Tegan Griffith. 

[Remarks by Sgt. Tegan Griffith]

Thank you, Tegan.

For the past three years CPB has committed more than 15 million dollars toward veteran-related content and community engagement. Truthfully it all started eight years ago when Malcom Brett of Wisconsin Public Television gave our Vietnam veterans that long overdue welcome home. And later, WPT worked with CPB and public media stations to launch a wider approach, engaging with our post 9/11 returning veterans as they confronted the challenges of re-entering American civilian life. And all of you told these stories as you engaged with your communities, and what happened is you connected veterans to the resources and opportunities that they really deserve. The stories are also connecting, as Tegan said, civilians to veterans and giving us an appreciation of their courage, their leadership and commitment. 

I’m pleased to announce our third round of grants for Veterans Coming Home working with Wisconsin Public Television and your stations for this digital-first, engagement-plus initiative. Further, as Sharon Rockefeller mentioned yesterday, CPB is providing additional support for station engagement connected to Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” series as well as support for WNET’s Veterans’ Content Sharing platform. All of these stories are part of public media’s important knowledge infrastructure. As my good friend, four-star retired General Stanley McChrystal said, “As a country, we can’t be strong unless we are smart. And a strong civil society requires citizens who are informed.”

Please watch.

[Gen. Stanley McChrystal video]


Yes. We are the adults in the room.

Enjoy your lunch and we’ll be right back.


[Rep. Tom Cole video]

[Remarks by Iowa Public Television President and CEO Molly Phillips]

[Sgt. Sal Giunta video]

[Remarks by Sgt. Sal Giunta]


Thank you. Well, I had a whole bunch of stuff to tell you but he just said it all.  We’re so proud of you, and we appreciate everything that you have done for us and our country and everything you’re doing now, Sal. Did I mention he’s Italian American? Anyway, thank you all for everything you do every day. Enjoy the rest of the conference.