Monday, May 2, 2005

Watching PBS

From the New York Times:

The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is aggressively pressing public television to correct what he and other conservatives consider liberal bias, prompting some public broadcasting leaders – including the chief executive of PBS – to object that his actions pose a threat to editorial independence.

Without the knowledge of his board, the chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, contracted last year with an outside consultant to keep track of the guests’ political leanings on one program, “Now With Bill Moyers.”

In late March, on the recommendation of administration officials, Mr. Tomlinson hired the director of the White House Office of Global Communications as a senior staff member, corporation officials said. While she was still on the White House staff, she helped draft guidelines governing the work of two ombudsmen whom the corporation recently appointed to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts.

Mr. Tomlinson also encouraged corporation and public broadcasting officials to broadcast “The Journal Editorial Report,” whose host, Paul Gigot, is editor of the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. And while a search firm has been retained to find a successor for Kathleen A. Cox, the corporation’s president and chief executive, whose contract was not renewed last month, Mr. Tomlinson has made clear to the board that his choice is Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee who is now an assistant secretary of state.

Mr. Tomlinson said that he was striving for balance and had no desire to impose a political point of view on programming, explaining that his efforts are intended to help public broadcasting distinguish itself in a 500-channel universe and gain financial and political support.

“My goal here is to see programming that satisfies a broad constituency,” he said, adding, “I’m not after removing shows or tampering internally with shows.”

But he has repeatedly criticized public television programs as too liberal overall, and said in the interview, “I frankly feel at PBS headquarters there is a tone deafness to issues of tone and balance.”

Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive of PBS, who has sparred with Mr. Tomlinson privately but till now has not challenged him publicly, disputed the accusation of bias and was critical of some of his actions.

“I believe there has been no chilling effect, but I do think there have been instances of attempts to influence content from a political perspective that I do not consider appropriate,” Ms. Mitchell, who plans to step down when her contract expires next year, said Friday.

[…]

Mr. Tomlinson said he understood the need to reassure liberals that the traditions of public broadcasting, including public affairs programs, were not changing, “that we’re not trying to put a wet blanket on this type of programming.”

But his efforts to sow goodwill have shown that what he says he tries to project is sometimes read in a different way. Last November, members of the Association of Public Television Stations met in Baltimore along with officials from the corporation and PBS. Mr. Tomlinson told them they should make sure their programming better reflected the Republican mandate.

Mr. Tomlinson said that his comment was in jest and that he couldn’t imagine how remarks at “a fun occasion” were taken the wrong way. Others, though, were not amused.

“I was in that room,” said Ms. Mitchell. “I was surprised by the comment. I thought it was inappropriate.”

The Republicans want to rule everything. Today Sesame Street, tomorrow the world!

This logic is based on the fact that “public” in PBS means that a portion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting get part of their budget from tax dollars and therefore PBS and NPR should reflect the “broad spectrum” of political views. In fact the amount of money that CPB gets from each taxpayer wouldn’t buy them a cup of coffee at the Gateway Cafe, so it’s not like it’s a huge part of the budget. Compared to the amount of money that the corporations that own the commercial networks and cable systems get to write off of their taxes and the amount of money they spend to influence Congress through lobbying and other efforts (“Hello, Mr. DeLay; you want that in small bills or should I just write you a check?”), the Corporation of Public Broadcasting is the 98-pound nerd in the locker room at the Mr. Universe contest. But the White House never misses a chance to be the bully.