By Hope Katz Gibbs
The question came at the end of Sharon Rockefeller’s luncheon speech at the National Press Club: What is your response to critics who say that public broadcasting is too liberal? Rockefeller paused, looked out into the audience, and with a hint of a smile said: “No, it isn’t.”
With similar poise and style, the CEO of Washington’s flagship public TV and radio station, WETA, spoke for 30 minutes about the role of public media in our democracy.
A champion for public broadcasting, Rockefeller told the audience of 150 reporters, business leaders, and politicians gathered in the grand Press Club’s ballroom: “From the founding days of this nation, the U.S. has recognized that along with the right of the people to shape their own government comes the responsibility to have an informed, involved citizenry. In today’s era of global access, we are increasingly more aware of world events. Nonetheless, our society is becoming more polarized. Public broadcasting can and does counteract that trend. The concept of civil discourse is not a quaint ideal, but a very necessary tool for bonding a country together.”
Her personal discovery of public broadcasting came in the 1970s when her husband (Senator John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia) was president of West Virginia Wesleyan College, and she was a young mother raising three children under the age of 5. She listened to All Things Considered while carpooling and Sesame Street while preparing meals. “Then, standing in my kitchen one day, I had an epiphany,” she shared. “All this great programming came from a related source: Public radio and TV. It was at that moment I became a true believer in the power of those mediums to inform, educate, and inspire.”
Although being a good political wife was important to her, she knew her life’s work would be to advance public broadcasting. Soon after, Rockefeller began a 12-year term on the board of directors for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, including four years as chairman. She has led WETA since 1989.
Her life has been fortunate, indeed. But not as free-spirited as she might have liked. She mentioned during her speech that then political wannabe Jay Rockefeller proposed with a particular wedding date in mind: April 1, 1967. “When I asked him why, he said it was after the election, of course,” she explained, adding with a wry tone: “and note, too, that our kids were born in off-election years, as well: 1969, 1971, 1973, and 1979.”
In fact, the graduate of Stanford University has truly struggled personally. Her twin sister, Valerie Percy, was murdered in the family’s home in 1966, during the time their father was campaigning for the Senate. The case remains unsolved. And in July 2005, Sharon was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. She is currently in remission.
Still, Rockefeller remains grateful for her life and her experiences. “Relatively few of us have the good fortune to devote our professional lives to the causes we hold most dear,” she believes. “I have been truly fortunate.” — By Hope Katz Gibbs, for the National Press Club