Mitchell: No Political Bias at PBS

Jul 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

On the opening day of the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell rejected complaints that the service offered an overly liberal viewpoint as too simplistic.

“Our position is not to take positions,” she said at the Tuesday TCA session in Beverly Hills.

The previous day, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on next year’s funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that too much PBS programming contains a liberal slant and that the CPB must “restore the balance.”

Looking at issues as having merely two sides is an inaccurate way to look at programming, Ms. Mitchell said.

“We provide as many different perspectives as we can,” she said, noting that if producers take on controversial issues, the decision-making process on what to show is “completely transparent.”

Ms. Mitchell said she found “very troubling” charges that CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson secretly hired an outside consultant — at a cost of thousands of dollars in public funds — to monitor a number of PBS news and public affairs series for political bias. She said that if she were in the same position Mr. Tomlinson now finds himself in, she would have done as he did and called an outside investigation to investigate how public funds were spent as part of the consultant’s contract.

“We’re set up to ensure there is public trust,” Ms. Mitchell said.

She said she took Mr. Tomlinson “at his word” that he was looking into issues of bias on PBS as a way to broaden the service’s audience, not to stifle political dissent.

“We could have provided him a list of guests for free, and he could have called me,” Ms. Mitchell said. “There are other ways to do this that are more constructive.”

Ms. Mitchell declined to say whether Mr. Tomlinson should be fired, but noted PBS did not call for his resignation. “He doesn’t report to me,” she said. “I have no say-so over his coming or going.”

Asked if she thought Mr. Tomlinson’s behavior was meant to have a pre-emptive chilling effect on PBS airing controversial news programming in the future, Ms. Mitchell said, “If that was the intention, he’s failed.”

The suggestion floated by some congressional critics of PBS, namely that the service should air only kids programming, scientific fare and nonpolitical series, is “not in our mission,” Ms. Mitchell said.

“We’re not going to do that,” she said. “Clearly educational and children’s programs is a big part of what we do. But it’s also in our mission to improve citizenship in this country, to inform citizens about issues that matter. You can’t do that if you don’t take on the tough ones.”

Ms. Mitchell also said PBS has yet to find a corporate underwriter to support “Masterpiece Theater,” which lost its annual $7 million appropriation from petroleum company ExxonMobil at the end of 2004. PBS has funded a less ambitious slate of programs for “Masterpiece” through 2006, but the service’s inability to secure another major sponsor has been frustrating, she said.

“It’s worrisome, and nobody has an explanation,” Ms. Mitchell said.