PBS: Public Or Pravda?
June 21, 2005 - 11:32am ET
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With all their high-minded rhetoric about the virtues of democracy, partisan conservatives should know that meddling with the political content of the media strikes at a core democratic value. It's one of the oldest totalitarian tactics in the book. The Bush administration's hypocrisy on democracy is nothing new, but the scandal unfolding around PBS might get the public's attention in a way that clampdowns on Iraqi news agencies do not. That’s why the story of Ken Tomlinson hiring a consultant to grade PBS content as “pro-” or “anti-” Bush should get wide distribution. The consultant also categorized programming as "anti-corporation" and "anti-DeLay."
Today on TomPaine.com and in The Washington Post , Bill Moyers reminds us that public broadcasting's mission is to educate and inform viewers. Moyers writes:
Deep down, the public harbors an intuitive understanding that for all the flaws of public television; our fundamental assumptions come down on their side, and on the side of democracy.
Although recent polls suggest freedom of the press is the least popular First Amendment right among Americans surveyed, I think public broadcasting is a different matter. Moyers is likely correct about the public's sympathies when it comes to public broadcasting. Which is why many Americans would likely be offended by the partisan interference in PBS Sen. Dorgan described yesterday:
Let me talk for a moment about my concern about where we are heading. Press accounts from last week noted that the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill on Thursday that would slash spending for public television and radio by nearly half. That includes a 25-percent cut in financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a total of $112 million in additional cuts for programs that provide continuing children's programming.
Just the news coming out of the Appropriations Committee in the House is ominous. But more than that, inside the organization, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hired a consultant to evaluate the bias in public broadcasting. He hired a consultant to go after the program called ``NOW with Bill Moyers.'' He hired that consultant without notifying the board of directors. This is the chairman of the board. He hired that consultant with public funds.
As an appropriator, I asked him: Would you provide me with the information that the consultant provided you.
This is what I received. I received a substantial amount of what he called raw data. It didn't include any summary, just raw data. I was struck and disappointed to see that a consultant was hired, and this is a summary of April 4 to June 4, just to pick one. And they go through the list of programs, and they label anti-Bush, anti-Bush, anti-DeLay. I guess if he reported on the controversy about TOM DELAY, it is anti-DeLay programming.
It says, ``anticorporation.'' In fact, they did a program about some waste. It might have been about Halliburton, although I have done hearings on Halliburton. I guess that would then be declared anticorporation. It is really not. Again, it reads anti-Bush, anti-Bush, pro-Bush.
I am struck that it is way out of bounds to be paying money for a consultant who decides to evaluate public broadcasting through the prism of whether or not it supports the President. That is not the role of public broadcasting, to decide whether it supports the President of the United States. If we ever get to the point where you can't be critical of public policy, Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the President, then there is something wrong.
Interestingly enough, they used another approach on another set of programming, and they divided these segments that were shown into either liberal or conservative segments. And there was a segment on June 7 last year and Senator Hagel from Nebraska, a conservative Republican, was on that segment and apparently said something that wasn't completely in sync with the White House. So he is labeled as a liberal. A conservative Republican Senator from Nebraska is labeled a liberal by the consultant for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Why? Because he said something liberal? No, apparently he just didn't have the party line down and said something that was perhaps at odds with policy coming out of the White House.
This list goes on and on. My guess is my colleague Senator Hagel is going to be mighty surprised to discover that a consultant hired by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting views his appearances on public broadcasting as appearances that contribute to a liberal bias because a conservative Republican Senator from Nebraska shows up on public broadcasting.
I don't mean to make light of this. I think it is serious. In addition to all of this, an allegation of bias--a relentless allegation of bias by the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in addition to his hiring a consultant to do this kind of thing--evaluate programming, whether it is anti-Bush or pro-Bush--in addition to all of that, there is now a discussion and potentially even a vote today in which they would select a new president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the leading candidate for that job is a former cochairman of the Republican National Committee.
I would not think it appropriate for a former cochair of the Democratic National Committee to assume the presidency of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; nor would I think it would be wise for Mr. Tomlinson, the chairman of the board, to usher in a former partisan as president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Again, I only say that, going back some 35 years and more, I think public broadcasting has been a real service to our country. Public television and public radio tackle things other interests will not tackle in this country. They are, in fact, independent. That is precisely what drives some people half-wild. My hope is that the actions of Mr. Tomlinson, the chairman, the actions of the board, whatever they might be today--my hope is that those actions will not further contribute to injuring public broadcasting.
We fund public broadcasting because we think it is a great alternative to commercial television. If you tune in--nothing against broadcasts in the evening on the commercial station, but I happen to think Jim Lehrer has one of the best newscasts in our country. He covers both sides aggressively. I think it contributes to our country and I think, in many ways, public broadcasting is a national treasure. I regret that I have to describe these things--consultants who evaluate whether or not something is anti-Bush. That is not the prism through which one should evaluate whether something makes sense. I will wait to see what happens today at the meeting taking place of the board. My hope is that they will not take action that will further injure and be detrimental to public broadcasting.
The partisan influence here is astonishing. You have Tomlinson, a former Republican appointee, hiring a consultant who turns out to be committed to the Republican cause. And finally, this all especially relevant because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is deciding this week to hire a new president. The leading candidate? A former co-chair of the Republican National Committee. New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg's recommendation to Tomlinson may be the best and most immediate way to rid CPB of its political taint: resign.
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