Crusaders at the CPB

(The Nation, July 28, 2005)

"It's an elitist enterprise," Newt Gingrich declared in 1995, amid a fierce (and unsuccessful) Republican campaign to "zero out" funds for the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. At Gingrich's side stood South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler, who excoriated viewers of Washington's PBS affiliate, WETA. One out of every eight contributors to WETA, declared Pressler, "is a millionaire, one out of seven has a wine cellar and one out of three spent time in Europe in the last three years." A decade later public broadcasting is again under pressure, but this time the threat comes not primarily from Congress--which recently voted down a proposal to gut the annual budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an entity that provides essential funding for public radio and TV stations--but from an activist CPB board brimming over with conservatives.

Kenneth Tomlinson, a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest and a friend of Karl Rove, is the current chairman of the CPB board and the man chiefly responsible for the latest crusade against public broadcasting. In recent months Tomlinson has installed Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as president of the CPB; permitted a White House staffer to draft guidelines for two new CPB ombudsmen (Ken Bode and William Schulz, formerly of Reader's Digest); and secretly hired an obscure, Indiana-based conservative consultant, Frederick Mann, to systematically analyze the content of several PBS and NPR programs: NOW With Bill Moyers, The Diane Rehm Show, Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and The Tavis Smiley Show. Mann's sprawling content analysis, riddled with typos and misspellings, uses a very broad brush to categorize guests as "liberal," "conservative" or "neutral." The Mann study, according to Senator Byron Dorgan, is "an amateur attempt to prove there was a liberal bias" on the public airwaves.

And yet Tomlinson (and his allies in the White House) have demonstrated greater political acuity than Gingrich and Pressler. Gone is the bombast about liberal elites and wine cellars; Tomlinson has instead positioned himself as an unlikely champion of "objectivity and balance" on public radio and TV. "NOW With Bill Moyers," Tomlinson wrote in a December 2003 letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell, "does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting." He was alluding to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, a contested portion of which, Section 396, calls for "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs." But the text of the law is ambiguous, because three paragraphs later the CPB--which was created as a firewall between Congress and the stations--is instructed to "assure the maximum freedom" of public broadcasters by adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward editorial content. Embracing one aspect of Section 396 and sidestepping another, Tomlinson has aggressively imposed the "objectivity and balance" clause on public broadcasters.

PBS executives, for their part, have worked to accommodate the needs of a more conservative CPB. "By spring 2003," according to the trade newspaper Current, "PBS was quietly letting major producers know that it wanted proposals for programs that would add conservative balance to the schedule." In November 2003 PBS announced the launch of a new series hosted by Tucker Carlson. A year later the Journal Editorial Report, hosted by Paul Gigot, hit the public airwaves, backed by Tomlinson and funded by CPB. (Carlson's show also received CPB funding.) But the new conservative programs weren't sufficient for Tomlinson, and his CPB continues to squeeze PBS. Earlier this year, according to the New York Times, a CPB contract granting $26 million to PBS was held up after the CPB insisted PBS enforce the "objectivity and balance" clause in the 1967 charter--a request, according to PBS lawyers, that constituted a serious threat to PBS's editorial independence. The money was eventually released, but CPB's initial posture was disturbing to the PBS leadership.

Tomlinson's machinations have drawn considerable media attention, yet few commentators have pointed out that his actions fit neatly into a recognizable pattern that goes back to the Nixon years, when Republicans first sought to manipulate and control the new public broadcasting entity. In the early 1970s Reed Irvine, the late founder of Accuracy in Media (AIM), accused PBS of neglecting Section 396. Spooked by various PBS documentaries, AIM pressured the Federal Communications Commission to enforce the "objectivity and balance" clause. The FCC declined. In 1977 Senator Orrin Hatch tried again to push the FCC to enforce the clause with a bill titled the Public Broadcasting Fairness Act, but it went nowhere.

In the late 1970s leading advocates of public broadcasting clearly understood the readiness of conservative critics to exploit Section 396. In Made Possible By...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, James Ledbetter noted that the Carter Administration, in the wake of the Hatch bill, recognized Section 396 as a source of "continued mischief" and considered eliminating the "objectivity and balance" requirements. In 1979 Frank Lloyd, one of Carter's leading advisers on public broadcasting, accurately predicted that "individual Congressmen will continue to use the clause as a justification for closer CPB control of internal journalistic program judgments and close Congressional oversight of those decisions." But Section 396 remained on the books, and conservative critics in the Reagan era took note of it. Indeed, the historical record suggests that the notion of quantifying the political content of specific shows did not originate with Tomlinson but with two members of the Reagan-era CPB (each of whom perceived a liberal bias on PBS): Sonia Landau and Richard Brookhiser. According to Ledbetter, Brookhiser proposed a content analysis that would confirm or disprove Irvine's old allegations about liberal bias, but the idea ran into resistance from public broadcasters and was abandoned--until Tomlinson commissioned his content analysis from Mann.

The latest Republican offensive against public broadcasting has yielded mixed results. On June 23 the House repudiated an attempt to slash $100 million from the CPB's 2006 budget--"a huge moral victory for public broadcasting," according to PBS president Pat Mitchell. Yet recent events have once again illuminated two sobering facts about our public broadcasting system: its vulnerability to Congressional appropriations on the one hand and political chicanery from CPB board members on the other. These realities have plagued the system since its birth in the late 1960s, and they remain pressing issues today. From its inception, the CPB board has been a repository for patronage appointments for Democrats and Republicans alike. One current board member, Cheryl Halpern, has, along with her family, donated more than $324,000 to Republican causes since 1989. Another, Gay Hart Gaines, was a top fundraiser for Gingrich. Periodic attempts to depoliticize the board have failed: Last year, the Association of Public Television Stations launched a campaign to allocate four board seats to public broad casting station representatives, but the efforts were thwarted.

No issue in public broadcasting is more urgent than that of funding. Alternative proposals to guarantee the financial independence of the public broadcasting system have been floating around since the late 1960s, when members of the Carnegie Commission attempted to implement a BBC-style license fee on television sets, a proposal that sparked furious private sector opposition. Currently, the federal subsidy for public broadcasting in England is almost $27 per citizen, compared with $1.80 in the United States. Until we find a way to resolve the gargantuan funding issues, conservatives in Congress and their lackeys on the CPB board--who are united by a fear of hard-hitting, independent public affairs programming--will continue to wield Section 396 as a weapon, and our public broadcasting system, four decades after its birth, will remain an easy target for Republican deception, demagogy and mischief.