Media

Right-wing Coup at PBS?

The new Public Broadcasting boss either has an inappropriate sense of humor or he's the latest participant in what the FCC called a 'right-wing coup' of PBS.
Is Pat Mitchell the Martin Niemoller of public television?

You may recognize this quote from the Lutheran anti-Nazi activist, who formed a resistance movement and was then arrested and spent years in prison for his beliefs:

"First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

The ongoing conservative coup at the quasi-governmental Corporation for Public Broadcasting seems to have come at last for lame duck PBS president and CEO Mitchell. The evidence is everywhere, as detailed recently in articles in such mainstream mouthpieces as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Mitchell is being publicly criticized as "tone deaf" by CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, after having been "jokingly" told by him to ensure that PBS programming better reflect a Republican "mandate."

Meanwhile, as the Post noted (in an April 22 article "PBS Scrutiny Raises Political Antennas" by Paul Farhi):
"Liberal commentator Bill Moyers is out on PBS stations. Buster the animated rabbit is under a cloud of suspicion. And right-wing yakkers from the Wall Street Journal editorial page have been handed their own public television chat show."
In addition, CPB officials recently appointed for the first time in history two "ombudsmen" to review PBS news and public affairs programs (such as the award-winning "Frontline" and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer") for evidence of bias -- without bothering to inform Mitchell. They also insisted for the first time on tying new federal funding (CPB provides nearly $30 million annually to PBS) to an agreement that commits PBS to strict "objectivity and balance" in each of its programs -- something that, according to the PBS general counsel, amounts to: "government encroachment on and supervision of program content, potentially in violation of the First Amendment." And recently Ken Ferree, a top Republican operative and former FCC media bureau chief under Chairman Michael Powell, was named as an interim replacement for CPB chief executive Kathleen Cox. Ferree is meant to keep the seat warm until Tomlinson's choice for the post -- Assistant Secretary of State (and former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee) Patricia Harrison -- receives approval from CPB's board members, many of whom have been appointed by President Bush.
"We don't want to be alarmist, but I would be less than honest if I said there wasn't concern here," one senior executive at PBS, who insisted on anonymity because CPB provides about 10 percent of its annual budget,' told the Post. "When you put it all together, a pattern starts to emerge."
A week and a half later, Mitchell went on the record, telling The New York Times "I do think there have been instances of attempts to influence content from a political perspective that I do not consider appropriate."

Among the attempts cited by the Times: the hidden hiring of a consultant by CPB Board Chairman Ken Tomlinson to "review" the content of "NOW with Bill Moyers"; Tomlinson's assistance in lining up $5 million in corporate financing and subsequent PBS distribution of "The Journal Editorial Report," the weekly chat show featuring members of the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal; his penchant for involving the White House in matters ranging from legislation affecting the CPB board to addressing concerns about "objectivity and balance;" all the way to remarks at a "fun occasion" -- a post-election meeting last November -- when Tomlinson told PBS officials, including Mitchell, that they ought to make sure their programming better reflected the Republican "mandate."

"I was in that room," Mitchell told the Times. "I was surprised by the comment. I thought it was inappropriate."

An unnamed senior FCC official went further, however, telling The Washington Post that CPB under Tomlinson "is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated."

Ken Tomlinson dismisses such concerns, however, as "paranoia," telling the Post that his critics should simply "grow up," remarking in the Times, "I frankly feel at PBS headquarters that there is a tone deafness to issues of tone and balance."

Tomlinson says his goal is "to see programming that satisfies a broad constituency," and he is "concerned about perceptions that not all parts of the political spectrum are reflected on public broadcasting." He told the Post that he is: "only seeking balance" and that: "there are no hidden agendas."

But Tomlinson kept hidden the results of two "National Public Opinion" surveys indicating that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public is happy with PBS programming. The documents, buried in an annual report to Congress, were neither released to the press nor shared with PBS. But both surveys confirm the same thing: "The majority of the U.S. adult population does not believe that the news and information programming on public broadcasting is biased. The plurality of Americans indicate that there is no apparent bias one way or the other, while approximately one-in-five detect a liberal bias and approximately one-in-ten detect a conservative bias."

According to the Center for Digital Democracy, the surveys showed, that:
"public broadcasting had an 80 percent 'Favorable' rating; only 10 percent of those polled had an 'Unfavorable' opinion of PBS and public radio. ... More than half of those surveyed believed that PBS news and information programming was more 'Trustworthy' than news shows on the commercial networks. ... "
"Similarly, more than half of those surveyed believed that PBS provided more 'in-depth' news and information programming than the networks. ... Finally, more than half (55 percent) said that PBS programming was 'fair and balanced,' with strong support for its 'high quality programming.'"
There is definitely deafness at PBS headquarters, and has been for more than a decade -- but not of tone or balance, Instead, PBS officials like Pat Mitchell are guilty of ignoring the deafening clamor of conservatives mounting an assault on public media of all types, and particularly public television. Right-wing activists began organizing their CPB "coup" long ago, but PBS officials such as Mitchell and her predecessors have done nothing but stand by silently. Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and assisted by character assassins and political hit men like David Horowitz, they began by going after PTV's equivalent of Niemoller's "socialists, trade unionists and Jews."

I know, because I was one of them.

Along with Bill Moyers, David Fanning and "Frontline," my partner Danny Schechter and I were high on the original hit list. Our thought-crime? Producing the anti-apartheid newsmagazine program "South Africa Now," which appeared weekly between 1988-1991 on more than 150 public television stations. Unlike the Wall Street Journal, our company Globalvision received no funding or distribution assistance from either CPB or PBS. And when Horowitz -- then as now backed by the largesse of conservative funders -- labeled us "hard-line Marxist propagandists" and "advocates, not journalists," in major metropolitan newspapers, few within the public television hierarchy said a word. The same proved true when Horowitz later met secretly with top officials at the Los Angeles public television station KCET, which abruptly pulled our series off the air without discussion or notification.

After a week of public protest and a spate of articles about the controversy in the Los Angeles Times -- including its Pulitzer Prize-winning critic denouncing the station's "boneheaded decision" -- the station relented and reluctantly allowed the program back on the air, albeit after imposing a dumb, distancing disclaimer stating that "This program represents the views of its producers."

So they came for us, and the community spoke out, our viewers spoke out, and the Los Angeles Times spoke out, but PBS officials said nothing. The same was true of the attacks then and now on Moyers and Fanning and "Frontline," -- not to mention poor Buster and his lesbian, socialistic, Jewish, trade unionist supporters.

Now that they've come for PBS, its officials and its programming, is there anyone left to speak out?
This and other articles by Rory O'Connor are available on his blog.
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