Public broadcasting is the latest front in the Republican majority’s assault on the “liberal” media.
After years of trying to destroy public broadcasting from without, right-wing Republicans are now trying to do so from within, by planting aggressive conservatives on the board and staff. These people have no qualms about destroying the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) function as a “heat shield” from governmental influence. Rather, they seem bent on turning public broadcasting into a heat source – a censorship center.
This may be the most effective tactic yet in the longstanding struggle to kill public broadcasting. CPB, while only providing 15 percent of the total funding of public broadcasting, has a powerful leveraging function. It provides important operating money for its 350 member TV stations, and crucial producing funds for PBS. NPR depends on the money its member stations give it for programming, and those stations get a significant portion of their basic operating funds from CPB.
At the center of this current controversy are veteran broadcast journalist Bill Moyers and CPB board chair Kenneth Tomlinson, who ran Voice of America during the Reagan administration. (See “The Battle Over PBS” by Bill Moyers on page 40.)
Angered by criticism of the Republican Party on Bill Moyers’ “NOW,” Tomlinson promoted the development of two conservative opinion shows. One was hosted by Tucker Carlson and the other featured the staff of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Tomlinson has claimed that all he wants is to “balance” Moyers. But prominent journalists Carl Stern and Marvin Kalb have told colleagues on PBS’s Editorial Standards Review Committee that CPB’s advocacy for “ideological balance” has compromised PBS’s editorial integrity.
Earlier this year, Kathleen Cox was abruptly dropped as CPB president and temporarily replaced by Ken Ferree, a top adviser to former FCC chair Michael Powell and a supporter of greater media consolidation. Tomlinson now is touting Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, for the permanent position.
Without consulting PBS, CPB broke new ground by appointing a committee of two, one of them Tomlinson’s former executive editor at Reader’s Digest, to review all PBS news and public affairs programs for “objectivity” and “balance.” In an internal memo, PBS general counsel described this as “government encroachment on … content, potentially in violation of the First Amendment.”
CPB’s own studies, conducted by professional pollsters in 2002 and 2003 (before Tomlinson took over), found that PBS was rated more trusted, fair and balanced than any other broadcaster. Unsatisfied, Tomlinson paid $10,000 to a personal associate to analyze Moyers’ program (which frequently interviews conservatives), placing guests in categories like “anti-Bush,” “anti-business,” and “anti-Tom DeLay.” The results of that analysis are not known because, as Television Week TV critic Tom Shales wrote, Tomlinson “had the report locked away in a drawer, stamped it ‘confidential,’ and now pretends it doesn’t exist.”
In its current contract with PBS, the CPB pledged to provide $22.5 million a year (about 20 percent of its funding) for two years on the condition that PBS adopt editorial guidelines and standards, provide copies of those guidelines to the board, and not invest “CPB funds in programs of a controversial nature” that fail to meet congressionally mandated standards for balance and objectivity. While this agreement was a compromise from CPB’s previous demand that PBS submit its programming for approval, it is nonetheless a victory for Tomlinson and his fellow Republican board members.
A progressive response is rapidly emerging. On May 10 – 15, some 2,500 people gathered in St. Louis for the National Conference for Media Reform. (See “Free Speech in Action,” page 10) On behalf of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (cipbonline.org), I presented our proposal to restructure public broadcasting as an independently funded public trust.
Ernest Wilson, one of the CPB’s two Democratic board members, advised attendees: “The change needed cannot come from inside the Beltway. It’s got to come from the people in this room and in your communities.” Already, more than 70,000 Americans have signed the Free Press petition calling on Tomlinson to resign and demanding that “the public be put back into PBS.” At present, Free Press and Common Cause are spearheading a movement to challenge this assault on PBS and NPR. Among the initiatives will be town meetings held across the nation. Advocates are seeking public broadcasting that includes alternative voices rather than justifies their exclusion; that reflects on power, not simply reflects power.