PBS Battle Heads to Senate

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

A controversial publicity campaign by PBS and National Public Radio stations last week helped pressure the House of Representatives to restore radical cuts in funding for public television. However, the appointment of Patricia de Stacy Harrison as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s president and CEO sent a signal to many that the Bush administration still intends to reshape public broadcasting, suggesting plenty of turbulence ahead.

The battle now moves to the U.S. Senate, which traditionally has been kinder than the House to public broadcasting. Public television executives are pressing not only for restoration of the full $400 million funding in the House bill, but also for other money to be restored or added.

In the House, an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., still withheld $23 million in funding for a program that finances children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards From Buster.” Public broadcasters had also been hoping for $85 million to underwrite the switch to digital TV. “With the future of the public broadcasting system still at stake, we will continue to work … to ensure that full funding will be restored as the bill moves through the U.S. Senate and to conference committee in order to ensure the future of public broadcasting,” PBS President Pat Mitchell said in a statement.

Other public broadcasters last week also cautiously celebrated the House action. “Without this victory, our stations would have been in a severe financial bind,” said John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations. “Some smaller stations would have gone off of the air, with the entire industry being placed at risk from a very negative ripple effect.”

However, some public interest groups remained wary. “What the Republicans did today is to nail a death notice on the door of public broadcasting,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.

Public broadcasters evaded the full brunt of the GOP funding cuts, largely with the help of a national on-air campaign on more than 100 public TV stations that asked viewers to contact their representatives in Washington. In its campaign, WETA-TV, a PBS member station in Washington, carried alerts that referred viewers to the station’s Web site. “These cuts will have a devastating effect on WETA and the television and radio programs you and your family rely on,” the WETA spot said.

“We were concerned that this vote was happening so quickly,” said Mary Stewart, a WETA spokesperson. “It’s the speed and the severity of the cut that we think the public should be informed about.”

Some conservatives said public broadcasters acted improperly by using station resources to lobby on the funding issue.

L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said: “This is outrageous, and is one more example of how far liberal media bureaucrats will go to spend the money of hard-working Americans to promote ideas and programming that are political to the core and contrary to the basic values of the majority of Americans.”

Mr. Bozell said that shows like “Sesame Street” are not threatened by cuts in federal funding because they are multimillion-dollar enterprises capable of making it in the marketplace.

“PBS was launched 38 years ago with supposed ‘seed money’ to get it going. Since then, it has spent some $7 billion in ‘seed money,’ provided by taxpayers, and produced a litany of liberal-left programs sprinkled with some decent kids shows to give it a respectable veneer. It’s time to end the media welfare program that is PBS.”

Even some of the industry’s closest allies in the watchdog community were concerned about the on-air campaigns. The Center for Digital Democracy’s Mr. Chester said he would have preferred that stations conducted serious broadcast forums on air, where all sides of the funding issue had been fairly presented.

“A kind of one-dimensional call to action is ill-advised because they’re government-funded,” Mr. Chester said. “Today it’s a call for their survival. But it’s a slippery slope as to how they would use their political power in the future.”

Public broadcasters are also concerned about what to expect now that Ms. Harrison has been approved, joining CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, who has been leading the charge for public broadcasting reforms.

The appointment of Ms. Harrison is particularly controversial because she is a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee-and her selection comes at a time when CPB has been coming under mounting criticism over accusations that it is using its power over public broadcasting’s federal purse strings to force PBS and NPR to become more accommodating to Republican views.

“Patricia Harrison is the wrong person named under the wrong process with the wrong skill sets for this job,” said Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause. “It was a drive-by hiring that should deeply offend anyone who cares about the editorial integrity of public broadcasting.”

Added Sen. Byron Dorgan, R-N.D., “I am deeply disappointed in this decision. As I have said before, I believe strongly that the appointment of a partisan political figure as the president of the CPB is a huge mistake and undermines the spirit of nonpartisanship that has characterized CPB’s leadership in the past.”

Industry executives, who have reason not to antagonize the powers that be at CPB, were only slightly more gracious. “Patricia Harrison is a well-respected executive with a track record of significant accomplishments,” PBS’s Ms. Mitchell said in a statement. “PBS has had concerns about the appointment of a former political party chair to the position of president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting-which must be nonpartisan in both appearance and execution.” Ms. Mitchell added, however, “With that said, it is our hope and expectation that Ms. Harrison will execute her responsibilities with nonpartisan integrity.”

Conservatives countered that there’s a long tradition in public broadcasting of hiring political partisans. Among the examples they cited was Frank Mankiewicz, a former NPR president who had been campaign director for George McGovern’s presidential campaign; and Sharon Rockefeller, wife of Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who is president and CEO of WETA.

“Apparently they don’t mind when politically connected Democrats run TV stations; it’s only when Republicans do,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute. “Obviously PBS and NPR have been a liberal fiefdom, and people trying to put Republicans in there is creating a furor.”

Meanwhile, the Association of Public Television Stations’ Mr. Lawson took the occasion to announce that APTS will promote legislation to reform the way CPB is governed and run.

“We must define a new framework that gets Washington politics out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Mr. Lawson said.

Ms. Harrison’s candidacy for CPB’s top slot was one of the better-known secrets in Washington. By early last week, concern over the political implications of her appointment had grown so hot that 16 Democratic senators-led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.-cited Mr. Tomlinson’s support of her candidacy as further evidence of why President Bush should fire the CPB chairman.

“We urge you to immediately replace Mr. Tomlinson with an executive who takes his or her responsibility to the public television system seriously, not one who so seriously undermines the credibility and mission of public television,” the lawmakers said in a June 21 letter to President Bush.

In addition, watchdog groups, seconding those concerns about partisanship, amassed more than 100,000 petitions urging Mr. Tomlinson to step down.

“Ken Tomlinson is a radical right-wing activist who sees any programming that deviates from his world view as evidence of liberal bias,” said Josh Silver, executive director of the Free Press.

Despite t
he criticisms, Mr. Tomlinson, protected by a special security detail during a public CPB board meeting last Tuesday, said other leaders of public broadcast organizations have been political activists.

“When people with partisan traditions come to institutions like CPB, they leave these traditions at the door,” Mr. Tomlinson said during the meeting.

Added Ms. Harrison-who was declining interviews until her official July 5 start-in a statement, “I am pleased to join with the board and all stakeholders in the future success of public broadcasting.”

At the request of Rep. Obey and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., CPB’s inspector general is investigating allegations that Mr. Tomlinson has been politicizing public broadcasting by, among other things, hiring consultants and ombudsmen to monitor PBS programming for political bias and to criticize public radio and TV fare.

In brief remarks to reporters last week, Mr. Tomlinson predicted vindication. “I’m confident that when the inspector general is finished with his investigation … all will see that not only did I do nothing illegal but also did nothing that is not in keeping with the traditions of CPB,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “I support public broadcasting and I’m pleased to be in the job, and I don’t think that anyone after they examine the situation will want me removed from the job.”

Watchdog groups say one of their key concerns is that Mr. Tomlinson and his Republican colleagues at CPB are trying to use their influence to discourage hard-hitting investigative journalism on PBS and NPR in favor of cultural and entertainment programming.

Said Mr. Tomlinson during CPB’s board meeting last week, “If we want to continue to have broad-based support for public broadcasting from across the political spectrum, we in public broadcasting must do everything we can to demonstrate that we take our obligations under the law seriously.

“At CPB, that means that we have to accept our responsibility under the Public Broadcasting Act to encourage public broadcasting to offer balanced perspectives on controversial topics. And these days, nothing seems more controversial than programming about politics and policy.”