PBS Says It Will Stay Its Course

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

With public broadcasting’s federal funding almost in the bag, industry leaders last week were cautiously distancing themselves from calls by Republican lawmakers to eliminate what conservatives see as political bias in public broadcast programming.

“We’re not going to program PBS by political equivalency,” Pat Mitchell, PBS president and CEO, said July 12, the opening day of the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour in Beverly Hills.

“Most Americans have no belief that there is bias, political bias, in the programming of NPR,” National Public Radio President Kevin Klose added during a briefing for reporters in Los Angeles.

The bias issue continued to dog the industry, even though the Senate Appropriations Committee voted last week to provide public broadcasting with much of the federal funding that the industry has been seeking for next year.

Along with the money, key Republicans made clear that they expect PBS and NPR to eliminate what conservative critics see as a liberal political bias in public broadcast programming.

Giving voice to GOP concern during Senate hearings last week was Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who also took the occasion to publicly praise controversial moves by Kenneth Tomlinson, Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s beleaguered Republican chairman, to promote political balance in PBS shows.

“The [CPB] board’s problem is to get rid of that [bias in public broadcast programming] and restore the balance that existed in the past in this system,” said Sen. Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The senator warned that an effort last month by Republicans in the House of Representatives to slash public broadcasting’s federal funding was fueled by a GOP perception that some PBS and NPR programming is biased against conservative values-a perception the influential lawmaker made clear that he shares.

“I think [the Senate’s ] job is to put money back and convince [GOP leaders in the House] that there has been a wakening call, that the bells have rung and that people have heard the message and we’re all trying to make this system work,” Sen. Stevens said.

“The message is very clear: You play ball or you’ll end up on the History Channel,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy.

Still, in her remarks at the press tour, PBS’s Ms. Mitchell insisted that it will be business as usual at public broadcasting.

“We are going to program [the service] adhering to the statute and the principles of balance, which means in any issue we are going to try and provide as many different perspectives as we can, and we’re going to require of our producers, as we always have, if they’re talking about a controversial issue, they are completely transparent about how they got to the conclusion they got to,” Ms. Mitchell said.

She said that under PBS’s editorial standards, balance over the entire schedule is what’s critical, not balance within a particular program.

“The good news is our editorial standards work, and the public opinion polls say 80 percent of Americans see no bias from any point of view,” she said.

In his briefing for reporters, NPR’s Mr. Klose said CPB’s own studies show that only 21 percent of the public thinks NPR has a liberal slant. “They think that there is a much greater liberal bias at CNN, ABC, NBC [and] CBS,” Mr. Klose said.

Ms. Mitchell insisted that public broadcasting has not been intimidated into backing away from controversial programming by Mr. Tomlinson’s actions at CPB, which included hiring consultants and ombudsmen to monitor PBS and NPR shows.

“If that was the intention, he failed,” Ms. Mitchell said.

On a related front, Ms. Mitchell rejected the suggestion by some conservative critics that PBS should air only kids programming, scientific fare and nonpolitical series.

“Not in our mission,” Ms. Mitchell told reporters. “We’re not going to do that. 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.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Mitchell said she found “very troubling” the fact that CPB had been secretly monitoring PBS programming. She also shared concerns that CPB’s integrity as a buffer against political interference in public broadcasting-one of CPB’s main purposes-has been undermined.

“There are clearly questions, and rightly so, about whether the heat shield is in place,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Watchdog group representatives are particularly concerned about the GOP’s criticisms of public broadcasting because they see those as part of a thinly veiled effort to discourage public broadcasting’s role as one of the last existing refuges for hard-hitting investigative and point-of-view journalism-material that traditionally leaves bruised egos and reputations in its wake.

“What they really want to do is turn public broadcasting into a more passive adjunct to support Bush administration goals on literacy and patriotism,” said the Center for Digital Democracy’s Mr. Chester.

“The editorial integrity of public broadcasting continues to be in danger,” added Celia Wexler, VP for advocacy for Common Cause. “If we’re going to be in a democracy, we need to hear more than one side, not just the government’s side.”

In her first public appearance as CPB’s president and CEO, Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, told reporters at the Senate hearings that she got the GOP message at the hearing.

“I thought they made their point in a very low-key way,” Ms. Harrison said.

In addition, Ms. Harrison shared what she views as public broadcasting’s central appeal for her.

“I see public broadcasting as an extension of reaching out … at a time when we need more connectors than ever before, things that pull us together and don’t divide us,” Ms. Harrison said.

Said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Hollywood watchdog Center for Creative Voices: “I hope people who make the programming decisions don’t back off just because it’s going to potentially offend the people who are ultimately controlling the purse strings in Congress.”

Since CPB’s Mr. Tomlinson has emerged as the key GOP villain in the minds of many enmeshed in the battle over PBS’s programming, the fact that his term as the corporation’s chairman expires in September would appear to provide an opportunity to end a public controversy that even Mr. Tomlinson concedes has not been in the industry’s best interests.

But watchdog group representatives last week alleged that Cheryl Halpern-who along with fellow Republican CPB board member Gay Hart Gaines is said to be a leading contender to succeed Mr. Tomlinson-is a chip off the Tomlinson block.

“Unfortunately, replacing Tomlinson with Halpern in no way assuages our concerns about the politicization of the CPB board,” said Chellie Pingree, Common Cause president and CEO, in a statement. “Halpern has made her career advocating specific ideological and partisan agendas. She also has been a significant contributor to Republican causes.”

Common Cause said that Ms. Halpern, during her Senate confirmation hearing for her CPB seat, agreed with the assessment of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., that Bill Moyers, former host of PBS’s “Now,” was “the most partisan and nonobjective person I know in media of any kind.”

Ms. Halpern, according to the watchdog group’s statement, is a longtime Republican activist who chaired the Republican Jewish Coalition. She also previously served as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an agency chaired by Mr. Tomlinson that oversees U.S. government broadcasting organizations, such as the Voice of America.

In an interview last week, Mr. Tomlinson, whose attacks on what he views as public broadcasting’s liberal bias were greeted by calls from Democrats for his firing, said he views Sen. Stev
ens’ remarks during the appropriations hearing last week as vindication for his efforts.

At the same time, Mr. Tomlinson said he does not anticipate additional moves to correct public broadcasting’s course. In urging public broadcasters to heed Republican calls to eliminate programming bias last week, Sen. Stevens said he believes the public broadcasting system is an essential service that should be fully funded.

“I deplore the fact that there are some people within it that want to exercise their political bias,” Sen. Stevens said. “It is my judgment that there should be no bias, no leaning to the right or the left by management or by those who operate these stations.”

Also last week, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced that CPB’s inspector general has agreed to investigate whether the CPB board inappropriately cut corners to hire Ms. Harrison-allegedly Mr. Tomlinson’s choice for the job.

“Complaints that the selection process was inadequate are significant and come from people in a position to know the facts,” Sen. Dorgan said.

The inspector general is already investigating Mr. Tomlinson’s efforts to study political bias and his hiring of lobbyists to influence legislation, which he opposed, that would have forced CPB’s board to include station representatives.

In her impromptu remarks to reporters last week, Ms. Harrison said she understands concerns about her Republican political roots. But she said she is a strong advocate of “independence, and that’s in the mandate of the CPB anyway.”

Aside from leaving CPB’s $400 million appropriation for next year intact, the measure approved by a Senate committee last week provides $35 million of the $45 million public broadcasters wanted for DTV conversion, and $40 million of the $52 million the industry requested to beef up its interconnection system. The committee also provided $25 million of the $32 million public broadcasters wanted to fund children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Postcards From Buster.”

“By the standards of today’s budget situation, these numbers are a strong statement of continued bipartisan support of public broadcasting,” John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, said in a statement.

In the wake of a publicity campaign by PBS and NPR stations last month, the House restored $100 million that had been proposed to be cut from CPB’s $400 million budget next year but declined to provide the more than $100 million public broadcasters wanted for other programs.

Despite the sense of victory among some public broadcasters last week, the Senate appropriations bill still faces hurdles. It first heads for a vote on the Senate floor. Members of the House and Senate are expected to meet in conference in the fall to work out the differences between their bills.

In an effort to avoid similar confrontations in the future, Common Cause’s Ms. Wexler said watchdog groups will lobby for legislation that would help ensure public broadcasting’s independence by seeking a series of reforms, including one that would ensure that public broadcasting’s federal funds are provided to the industry at least five years in advance.

Christopher Lisotta contributed to this report.