Don't Get Fooled Again

Meet the new boss.

She's the same as the old boss -- or maybe even worse.

So if you've been appalled at the "creeping conservative" coup in public broadcasting ... dismayed at seeing Bill Moyers pilloried while millions of taxpayer dollars were lavished on a public affairs program anchored by the soft-right son of a former chief of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and a news chat show featuring the hard-right editorial board of the Wall Street Journal ... horrified by the selection of the former head of the Republican National Committee as CPB president ... and were moved to call for CPB Chair Ken Tomlinson to leave his post ... watch out!

You're about to get what you asked for.

The controversial Tomlinson's second one-year term expires in September -- and he cannot be reappointed. As the Washington Post reported last week, a leading Republican donor named Cheryl F. Halpern is the top candidate to replace him.

Halpern and her husband Fred -- long major financial supporters of Republican candidates -- have given more than $324,000 to Republicans since 1989. During the last election, Mother Jones magazine ranked them among the nation's top 100 "hard" money contributors.

Appointed to the CPB board three years ago by President Bush, Halpern is a close ally of Tomlinson and part of the five-member Republican majority now controlling the board. She and Tomlinson served together on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the federal government's international broadcasting services, such as Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe. Those overseas government information services often serve as a feeder system for pubic broadcasting officials.

(Tomlinson chairs the BBG as well as CPB, and directed VOA during the Reagan administration; former CPB Chairman Richard Carlson once headed the VOA; former CPB President Bob Coonrod was a longtime U.S. Information Agency executive; current CPB board-member Ernest J. Wilson III was a U.S. Information Agency official during the Clinton years; current NPR President Kevin Klose was the BBG's top executive; his deputy, Ken Stern, also worked there.)

As the chair of CPB, the agency that distributes federal funds to noncommercial radio and TV stations and supposedly serves as a buffer between public broadcasting and politicians seeking to influence its news reporting and programming, Halpern would be far from impartial. At the Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to the CPB board in 2003, for example, she suggested that public broadcasting journalists should be penalized for biased programs. She also agreed with Senator Trent Lott, R-Miss., when he questioned the objectivity of the award-winning PBS journalist and commentator Bill Moyers.

"I certainly think he's the most partisan and nonobjective person I know in media of any kind," Lott said of Moyers. "It's the most blatantly partisan, irresponsible thing I've ever heard in my life, and yet [CPB] has not seemed to be willing to deal with Bill Moyers and that type of programming."

"The fact of the matter is, I agree," Halpern told Lott. "There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability." She added that penalties for journalists would be justified when balance fails, although CPB's own rules prohibited interfering with programming decisions.

"When there were allegations of impropriety [at the BBG] in violation of the journalistic code of ethics," Halpern told the senators, "we were able to aggressively step in, review the transcript of the potential violation and initiate penalties."

Neither Halpern nor Lott ever said what penalties they might propose. But Halpern did refer to her previous powers at the BBG -- which included "physical removal" of journalists -- as a model: "Going back to my BBG days, we were able to remove physically somebody who had engaged in editorialization of the news," she said.

"Was that man removed in handcuffs?" asked Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

If chosen as the new CPB Chair, Halpern's high-profile comments and political connections threaten to make her tenure every bit as controversial as Tomlinson's, -- which thus far has led public broadcasting executives to accuse him of partisanship, and Democrats to call for his resignation.

But if Halpern's nomination runs into trouble, informed sources say the Republicans have another candidate waiting in the wings -- another CPB board member named Gay Hart Gaines.

Gaines was a top fundraiser for Newt Gingrich a decade ago when he campaigned to de-fund CPB. She and her husband Stanley have donated more than $491,000 to Republican causes since 1989, according to federal figures compiled by Common Cause. Ms. Gaines, who chaired Gingrich's GOPAC fundraising vehicle, has such stature in Republican circles that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford once told her hometown (Palm Beach, Florida) newspaper, the Palm Beach Daily News, "When Gay Gaines asks you to do something, you say, 'Yes, ma'am.'"

Of course, politicizing public broadcasting is nothing new. Appointment to CPB's board is the result of a political patronage process, and to the victor belongs the spoils. When Democrats occupy the White House, they also put generous and well-connected friends on the CPB Board. Alan Sagner, one Clinton-era board member and chairman in 1996-97, gave more to Democrats than the Halperns gave to Republicans -- in excess of $399,000 since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And while two recent national surveys of TV viewers, commissioned by Ken Tomlinson, gave high marks to both PBS and NPR for their news and public-affairs reporting, and although two veteran journalists hired by Tomlinson in April to serve as ombudsmen have thus far filed reports filled only with praise for public broadcasting programming, Cheryl Halpern's nomination as CPB Chair will only ensure that the charged, highly partisan politics of public broadcasting shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

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