Pushing PBS to the right

Republicans have launched a heavy-handed campaign to correct public broadcasting's "liberal slant." There's just one problem: Most Americans don't think it has one.

Published May 10, 2005 7:58PM (EDT)

In the early 1970s a civil war erupted inside the fledgling world of public television. Upset with what they saw as its liberal news and public affairs programming, and particularly its tough coverage of the Vietnam War and the Watergate hearings, Nixon administration officials moved to rein in public television by stacking the board at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which acts as a governing body for the hundreds of local stations nationwide. The board then sought to control national programming decisions and curtail news programming.

"There were tremendous fights, with the Nixon Administration trying to prevent public television from doing any public affairs programming at all," former PBS president Lawrence Grossman once recalled to the New York Times. But Nixon's end run ultimately failed. In 1979, Newsweek quoted a PBS executive who insisted, "The war between CPB and PBS is over."

Today it's back on.

Amid a flurry of high-profile personnel changes, suppressed polling data, revised journalism guidelines, new oversight ground rules and deep suspicion, the CPB board -- once again under the control of White House-friendly Republicans -- and PBS are battling each other over content and allegations of PBS's liberal bias. The brawl is shaping up to make the Nixon-era dust-up seem tame by comparison: This weekend one PBS station manager dubbed CPB's crusade for "balance" a "witch hunt."

"It's designed to get people's attention and warn them not to do programming that will be questioned," says David Fanning, executive producer of "Frontline," PBS's award-winning investigative series. "We ask hard questions to people in power. That's anathema to some people in Washington these days."

"The situation is very concerning," says Christy Carpenter, a former Democrat-appointed member of the CPB board. She says that with the 2003 arrival of Republican CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, "the tone of the discussion became increasingly partisan. There was an agenda being pushed to bring in more conservative voices. It's appropriate to have a wide spectrum, and I have no objection if conservative voices are in the mix. But I had the impression that more was being pursued than just balance."

Traditionally charged with a dual role as PBS's personal cheerleader (creating goodwill on Capitol Hill) and bank account (CPB serves as a crucial funding source), the government-run, nonprofit CPB has again, as in the Nixon era, turned its attention to overseeing PBS programming, insisting that the more than 300 PBS affiliates nationwide acknowledge that their programming suffers from a liberal bias.

The effort by Tomlinson and his allies at the CPB -- at least one of whom thinks producers should face "penalties" if their programming is deemed unbalanced -- echoes the cry of conservatives who for the past three decades have accused PBS of a liberal bias. (During the '70s it was referred to as an "Eastern elite" bias.) Although PBS, compared with commercial TV news outlets, probably does pose more pressing questions to those in power, its hallmark "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," for example, makes sure to include mainstream conservatives, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, in its regular mix. The truth is that the widespread bias that board members are so eager to fix doesn't exist.

Tomlinson, a former editor at the staunchly conservative Reader's Digest who over the years has contributed exclusively to Republican politicians, was not available to comment for this story. But in April he told the Washington Post, "I am concerned about perceptions that not all parts of the political spectrum are reflected on public broadcasting."

Ernest Wilson, a Democrat-appointed CPB board member, agrees that fairness and balance represent "a genuine political concern" -- in part because "people who believe fairness and balance is a problem at PBS include some legislators on the Commerce Committee" (which oversees CPB funding). "But there are a myriad of other issues that are more important than fairness and balance. For instance, most of our PBS viewers are between the ages of 1 and 7 and 47 and 80, and there's nobody in between. That's a problem. And that's not a fairness and balance problem."

Asked if he thought the increasingly heated debate about objectivity had hijacked the CPB's larger agenda, Wilson said, "Yes, at the moment."

A CPB spokesman denies that the corporation has become distracted by the fairness and balance issue. "We're rolling up our sleeves and focusing on our core mission," says Eben Peck.

Yet it remains unclear what the evidence is for PBS's liberal bias. What are the egregious examples of so-called unfairness that are fueling the current controversy? Tomlinson himself rarely singles out any particular programming as being guilty of bias, or of not meeting public broadcasting's journalism standards. Rather than cite any actual infractions by PBS programs, Tomlinson has said he's concerned by the mere perception of a bias.

Last week he was quoted in Broadcasting and Cable magazine as saying he wanted to "broaden support for public broadcasting" while "eliminating the perception of political bias." And in response to a New York Times article last week on the tension between CPB and PBS, Tomlinson released a statement that read, in part, "Eliminating the perception of political bias ... is important to maintain continued public support for public broadcasting."

But the question remains, a perception of political bias by whom -- Republican politicians and conservative activists, or PBS viewers? If most PBS viewers and other Americans don't think the programming is biased -- and two internal polls prove they don't -- then why is the CPB unleashing this campaign?

Tomlinson has tipped his hand in the past. In the Nov. 17, 2003, issue of Current magazine, which covers public broadcasting, he argued, "If a significant number of conservatives are saying public TV is not for them, we need to change that" (emphasis added).

So if a significant number of environmentalists, or libertarians or Latinos or Asians, say public TV is not for them, will the CPB be willing to take drastic action to remedy that perception? And what constitutes a "significant number"? According to CPB polling done in 2003, 12 percent of Americans think PBS has a conservative bias. Why isn't the CPB board addressing that as well?

"They've established their own version of political correctness," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Tomlinson is taking things to the extreme with his ambitious agenda."

In fact, the CPB's crusade seems to flip on its head the organization's mandate, which, following Nixon's attempt at political interference, has been to act as PBS's "heat shield," insulating PBS programming from outside political pressure. Instead, the CPB is demanding programming changes to meet its political concerns.

The CPB was created and funded by Congress to provide about 20 percent of PBS's programming budget. Under the Public Broadcasting Act, the White House can appoint no more than five of the nine CPB board seats. One of the Democratic seats is unfilled, as it has been for several years, giving Republicans a comfortable decision-making majority.

During an interview for NPR's "On the Media," which aired over the weekend, Tomlinson insisted, "I did not choose to bring controversy to public broadcasting over the issue of balance. Others did." Yet recent events certainly suggest Tomlinson and his Bush-appointed allies on the CPB board have been fixated on the issue of balance.

  • Last year CPB handpicked two new conservative-leaning programs to balance out the alleged liberal bias on PBS: "Tucker Carlson Unfiltered," hosted by the conservative pundit, and "The Journal Editorial Report," featuring the uniformly pro-Bush editors from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. The two shows became perhaps the first in CPB history to be greenlighted specifically because they had an overt political perspective. That kind of micromanaging of the program schedule ought to be off-limits, says former board member Carpenter: "The board should not get involved in individual programming decisions. That's outside its purview."
  • Without the knowledge of his board, Tomlinson last year contracted with an outside consultant -- at a cost of $10,000 -- to monitor the weekly PBS news program "Now With Bill Moyers" for liberal bias, according to a report in the New York Times.
  • Late last year CPB suggested that PBS's long-established journalism standards were inadequate and urged it to alter the wording of its "objectivity and balance" guidelines.
  • In March, Tomlinson hired a White House staffer to help draft guidelines for the new positions of PBS ombudsmen, who would specifically monitor bias in programming.
  • Last month, without informing PBS first, CPB appointed the ombudsmen. One of the men last year publicly endorsed a Republican for governor in Indiana, and the other, a self-described conservative, is a close friend of Tomlinson's.
  • CPB shocked the public broadcasting community on April 8 by refusing to renew the contract of its chief executive officer, Kathleen Cox. She was replaced with Ken Ferree, a Republican who was a top advisor to Michael Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and who helped Powell craft new rules that would have drastically loosened media-ownership rules.
  • Finally, Tomlinson wants to tap the former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, Patricia Harrison, to step in as the permanent CEO.
  • "People feel like this is a mission for him," says one public-television source. Adds another veteran, "Everybody's scared to death."

    What's especially curious about the current objectivity controversy is that PBS airs hundreds of hours of programming each week, most of which is educational and cultural, and yet CPB's entire fairness and balance campaign -- dismissing its CEO, creating new shows, trying to rewrite PBS's journalism guidelines, hiring ombudsmen -- appears to stem from a single weekly program, Moyers' "Now." "All they talk about is the Moyers show," notes Carpenter. "Where else is the bias or the perceived bias?"

    Moyers left the show (which has since been cut back to just 30 minutes) months ago, yet conservative media critics, rather than celebrate his departure, continue to rally against Moyers with a vengeance. In his May 6 attack on PBS posted online, Brent Bozell dedicated nearly half his column to attacking Moyers and detailing his alleged bias (for example, criticizing Condoleezza Rice's "pattern of ineptness").

    Even when Moyers hosted the show, which routinely aired critical reports about the Bush administration, "Now" wasn't exactly a lightning rod for viewers' wrath. According to an attachment to CPB's annual report to Congress, CPB, eager for public feedback, created "Open to the Public," an interactive forum in which viewers can express concerns. For calendar year 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are publicly available, the initiative produced 1,139 e-mails from viewers. According to CPB, just 24 of those -- or roughly 2 percent -- were angry e-mails about "Now." (Drawing the most comments was "Sit and Be Fit," an exercise program for seniors; viewers e-mailed asking that it be shown on more local stations.) While individual PBS stations may have logged more complaints about "Now," CPB's own feedback mechanism barely registered any concern about the program.

    The findings likely come as little surprise to CPB officials, who obviously pored over results from a 2003 survey on liberal bias conducted jointly by a Republican and a Democratic firm. (The firms later hosted focus groups in red states, inviting only people who had complained about a liberal bias at PBS, so they could further detail their complaints.) As the "Research Objectives" portion of the results states, the survey's top priority was to "re-measure the extent to which people view news and information programming on PBS and NPR as being biased" (emphasis added).

    Why "re-measure"? Because, according to public television insiders, the first batch of polling done in 2002 produced unsatisfactory results from the CPB board's perspective; it showed little viewer concern about bias. "Tomlinson commissioned two polls. The first results were too good, and he didn't believe them," says one source. "After the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of polling, and they thought they'd get worse results." But the board didn't. Asked specifically about PBS's war coverage, only 7 percent of respondents thought it was "slanted." "They couldn't use any of it" to bolster any claims of bias, says the source. Overall, just 21 percent of respondents thought PBS was too liberal.

    Of course, if Tomlinson and his colleagues were looking for good news about PBS instead of bad, the wider poll results -- a healthy 80 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of public broadcasting -- would have been trumpeted as a triumph. (In an NPR interview aired last weekend, Tomlinson suggested that that 80 percent should be higher.) Meanwhile, a strong majority thinks PBS's news and information programming is more trustworthy, and more in-depth, than that of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN. Most viewers think PBS is a "valuable cultural resource," and a plurality of 48 percent want the government to provide more funding to PBS. (Only 10 percent want it to provide less.) But despite the good news, the CPB board refused to tout these results or even release them independently.

    Says Democratic CPB board member Wilson, "It's very important that the American public see these polls. They were paid for with public money and should be seen." Asked about any discussion the board had about the polls and releasing them widely to the public, Wilson says, "I'm not going to talk about what happens in the board meetings."

    It should be noted that the polling firms did report "a disparity between Republicans and Democrats with respect to their views towards news and information programming on public broadcasting." They're likely referring to the finding that 36 percent of Republicans think PBS has a liberal bias, compared with 21 percent of all respondents.

    But Republicans' complaints about PBS bias are consistent with how they view most mainstream news organizations. According to one of the most comprehensive surveys on public opinion about the media, conducted in 1997 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Republicans "are more likely to say news organizations favor one side than are Democrats or independents." In that survey, 77 percent of Republicans thought the press was biased, compared with 58 percent of Democrats. In other words, polls are likely to find about far more Republicans complaining about bias no matter which media outlet is being analyzed.

    Despite its own polling showing that bias was not a concern perceived by most Americans, the CPB pressed ahead with its aggressive plans to fix the problem. At her 2003 Senate confirmation hearing, Republican CPB board member (and major GOP fundraiser) Cheryl Halpern not only suggested that producers be penalized for any programming deemed to be biased but also demanded that PBS operate under an "objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics, [which] has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability."

    The truth is, PBS stations have operated under a strict code of journalistic ethics for decades. But late last year, as part of its contract renewal with PBS, which earmarks $29.5 million for the network in programming funds, CPB for the first time asked for a change in PBS's journalism guidelines. For the previous 14 years of the multimillion-dollar contract, CPB had relied on PBS to operate under its own well-established journalism standards. According to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the CPB, the corporation must meet several goals. One is ensuring a "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." The CPB instead moved to introduce statutory language making "objectivity and balance" guidelines an enforceable legal requirement.

    PBS balked. Claiming a First Amendment infringement and an unprecedented attempt by the CPB to assert direct control over its broadcasting, the network's attorneys noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had previously ruled that the "objectivity and balance" provision from the '67 Act "is not a substantive standard, legally enforceable by agencies or courts." The CPB relented, but still wants to OK PBS's journalism standards, which are in the process of being updated by a panel of journalists and academics. If the CPB objects to portions of those standards, that could spark yet another showdown.

    "I think the goal is to change the kind of journalism PBS occasionally does," says Chester at Center for Digital Democracy. "To sort of press for balance within each individual program and neuter PBS's ability to do serious reporting."

    In his recent "On the Media" interview, Tomlinson insisted he simply wants to create a balance on the PBS schedule, so that for every liberal program there's a counterbalancing conservative program. But in December 2003, three months after being elected as the CPB's chairman, Tomlinson wrote a letter to the head of PBS, complaining, "'Now With Bill Moyers' does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting" (emphasis added), as if suggesting the use of a stopwatch to time how many minutes each side has to tell its story.

    But there has never been a standard, or "law," requiring PBS to adhere to balance within each program. Instead, like the old fairness doctrine that applied to commercial broadcasters before it was rescinded during the Reagan administration, the fairness and balance guideline for PBS is measured by the totality of the network's schedule of programming.

    In Saturday's Denver Post, James Morgese, president and general manager of the Rocky Mountain PBS station, wrote, "If what is happening in Washington goes unchecked, we will probably have to start counting which shows or even which guests on shows will balance or counter-balance each other, and then start tabulating the amount of minutes, or even seconds, devoted to ideological points of view." Morgese dubbed the current CPB objectivity campaign a "witch hunt."

    Ironically, if strict new legal guidelines on fairness were applied, among the first shows that would have to be singled out for violating them would be "The Journal Editorial Report." Like "Tucker Carlson Unfiltered," which was shepherded to air with seed money from CPB, "The Journal Editorial Report" was tapped as a priority by the CPB to balance out "Now." But unlike "Now," which books conservative advocates such as Ralph Reed to debate issues, "The Journal Editorial Report" makes little effort to air opposing viewpoints during its weekly discussion of political events. For instance, during its March 25 segment on the unfolding Terri Schiavo story, every panelist agreed Congress had done the right thing by intervening in the right-to-die case, placing them well out of the American mainstream, which overwhelmingly objected to lawmakers' intervention in the case, according to several polls.

    CPB board member Wilson suggests it's not just the Journal's editors who are out of step. "Ask the American people about fairness and balance at PBS and it's not at the top of their list. But it is at the top of the list for some within a small Beltway loop."

    And for the moment, those people control public television.

    By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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