Public Broadcasting Veers to the Right

It is deeply troubling to learn that public broadcasting has been subject to intense ideological pressure from conservatives.

Ken Auletta's expose in this week's New Yorker "Big Bird Flies Right" points to several disturbing trends:


The decision by CPB to fund two programs -- one hosted by Tucker Carlson, who speaks for conservatives on CNN's "Crossfire," and one moderated by Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, at the same time that "NOW with Bill Moyers," which receives no CPB funds, is cut from an hour to 30 minutes, in what appears to be a Bush Administration litmus test for choosing members of the CPB. When CPB board candidate Chon Noriega, a UCLA media professor and co-founder of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, was interviewed by the White House, he was asked whether the CPB should intervene in programming "deemed politically biased." When Professor Noriega said intervention should be used in only extraordinary circumstances, the appointment process ground to a halt, and the White House asked Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) to put forward another candidate.

Bill Moyer's statement to Auletta: "This is the first time in my 32 years of public broadcasting that CPB has ordered up programs for ideological instead of journalistic reasons."
To begin with, there is a huge problem with the CPB. Whether it is a Democratic or Republican President who appoints them, CPB board members tend to be big political donors who often come with specific ideological agendas. This seems particularly true of the current board.

For example, President George W. Bush's most recent CPB appointees, Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern, have along with their families given more than $800,000 to the Republican Party and candidates since 1995. And both appointees have backgrounds that raise questions about their suitability to serve on the board. During her confirmation hearing last fall, Halpern indicated that she would welcome giving CPB members the authority to intervene in program content when they felt a program was biased. Gaines chaired Newt Gingrich's (R-GA) political committee GOPAC. This is the same Gingrich who as House Speaker proposed cutting all federal assistance to public television.

Current board chairman Kenneth Tomlinson has given $7,700 to Republicans since 1995, and has been active in Republican politics. A friend of Karl Rove, he is quoted in The New Yorker article as saying,"It is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in public television as people on the left have." Tomlinson has also objected to Moyers' including commentary in his programs.

The fact that members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides federal funds to public radio and TV, play politics with its program content should disturb us all -- irrespective of our political views. Public broadcasting should not find itself in the crosshairs of a partisan firing squad. At a time when Americans are finding it more and more difficult to get past the clutter and partisanship on commercial TV and radio to find truthful sources of information about their government, this ideological pressure may gag one of the few sources of independent, substantive news and commentary that Americans can count on.

The visionaries who created public broadcasting set up the CPB as a nonprofit corporation charged with distributing federal funds to public radio and television. CPB's primary mission has always been to serve as a "heat shield" between government and public broadcasting, protecting its programming from government interference. But instead of serving its intended function, the CPB now is the agent of ideological interference.

We cannot let partisans drive an ideological stake in the heart of public broadcasting. At a time when media consolidation is making it more difficult for Americans to hear diverse points of view and to be exposed to substantive, challenging journalism, we must save public broadcasting from these attempts to meddle with its editorial independence. Today I'm calling on our 250,000 Common Cause members and supporters and all those who support public broadcasting to phone or e-mail members of the CPB board. Tell them we won't tolerate playing politics with public broadcasting.

Chellie Pingree is the president of Common Cause, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the influence of special interests on politics.

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