The Corporation for Public Broadcasting angers critics with conservative programming.
From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 36.
By Tom Sullivan
Not wanting a world without Big Bird or Clifford the Big Red Dog, congressional leaders this summer restored threatened funding cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Still lingering are questions about whether CPB is wielding funding power to interfere with the Public Broadcasting Service’s public affairs programming.
CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson and Bill Moyers, former host of the weekly PBS program “Now,” exchanged heated rhetoric in the early summer over Tomlinson’s allegations of liberal bias in PBS programming.
Tomlinson, who told C-SPAN he “worked quietly in the system” for 18 months to address bias on PBS, hired a consultant to monitor guests on its programs and sought to add conservative voices to its Friday night lineup, which includes “Now.”
Tomlinson says he seeks to provide balance in accordance with the law; Moyers and others say that he is attempting to tip the scales toward more conservative programming.
Under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, CPB, a nonprofit private corporation, is charged with using federal funds to support public television stations and programs “with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature” and assuring freedom from interference with or control of program content. PBS receives funding from the corporation, among other sources.
Tomlinson’s actions are questionable, said former CPB Vice Chairwoman Christy Carpenter, a Democrat who served on the board with Tomlinson, but left in December 2002 before he became chairman.
“I think that when the kind of pressures come from the leadership of the CPB that ‘You’ve got to toe the line or watch out,’ which is really the message that’s been sent, that that can’t help but have a chilling effect ultimately upon the producers of programs,” Carpenter said. “I mean, hopefully, most are able to withstand those pressures, but I think it just can’t help over time but make people within the system more timid.”
Tomlinson denies he is trying to influence reporting on individual shows or pushing an agenda.
“[N]ever once did I say, let’s take off any programming . . . I always said, if a rising tide lifts all boats, let’s put on moderate to conservative programming to serve as a balance like the law requires,” Tomlinson said in a July 24 interview on C-SPAN that a CPB spokesman referred to in response to questions.
PBS spokeswoman Jan McNamara said there has been “no effect” on PBS programming — not even indirectly — resulting from Tomlinson’s criticism of “Now.”
It is easy to see why some people are not so sure. CPB provides 9 percent of the funding for public affairs programs on PBS. While this makes the corporation only the fifth largest category of funding for such programming, the money it provides is not insignificant.
Some public affairs programs, including “Now,” receive no direct funding from CPB. But “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” received $8.44 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, including about $2.8 million for special coverage of the election and the war in Iraq, according to CPB. “The NewsHour” will receive $6.36 million in CPB funds this year.
“Washington Week,” PBS’ longest running public affairs show, received $320,000 from CPB last year, including about $47,000 for war coverage, and will receive $251,000 this year.
“The money’s got to be important to them, even if it’s not the majority of their money or even close,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “If you suddenly lost 10 percent of your funding, that would become a major thing you’d have to deal with. You’d have to go and do a lot of development and fund raising.”
National Public Radio, by contrast, receives “virtually zero” CPB funding for programming, NPR Vice President of Communications Andi Sporkin said. Most CPB funds go toward station operations, though some CPB seed money is granted for new programs, she said.
It would be difficult to determine what would have happened to PBS if Congress stripped CPB funding, McNamara said. PBS does not “have a lot of excess resources,” she said.
“Obviously the resources in public television are not fungible,” McNamara said. “And if CPB funding or any one of our revenue streams were to somehow be no longer available, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do now.”
Those who fear Tomlinson has too much influence on programming also point to complaints involving his other government post, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for all U.S. international broadcasting, including the Voice of America. In July 2004, more than half of the editors working for VOA — the U.S. government-sponsored overseas news service — signed a petition to Congress accusing the governing board of creating radio services for the Middle East that lacked editorial oversight. The petition also accused the board of politicizing VOA.
The board has a direct supervisory role over VOA’s broadcasting services, unlike CPB’s relationship with PBS, but the board’s networks are required by federal law to provide objective news, just as CPB is required to ensure objectivity in the programming on public television.
And while Tomlinson has said he is not inclined to interfere in individual programs, the Bush administration has not shown similar restraint. In January, when PBS prepared to air an episode of the children’s television show “Postcards from Buster” that featured a lesbian couple, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wrote to Patricia Mitchell, the PBS president, asking for a refund of a Department of Education grant that helped pay for the episode. The grant, Spellings noted, was designed to “help prepare preschool age children for school.”
“We believe the “Sugartime!” episode does not come within these purposes or within the intent of Congress, and would undermine the overall objective of the Ready-To-Learn program — to produce programming that reaches as many children and families as possible,” Spellings wrote. “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.”
The letter also expressed a desire for more control over future programming.
“[Y]ou can be assured that in the future the Department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds,” Spellings wrote.
PBS pulled the program the same day the letter was sent, though it maintains it made that decision independently.
Tomlinson has loudly criticized certain PBS programs, especially “Now,” referring to the show as “liberal advocacy journalism” in the C-SPAN interview.
And he has done something about it. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) released documents June 30 showing that Tomlinson had hired a consultant to monitor the political leanings of guests on PBS and NPR shows, including “Now.” Tomlinson later told a Senate subcommittee that he hired the consultant to show that the guests on other shows were more balanced than guests on “Now.”
There are no “Buster-like” incidents directly tied to the CPB chairman. And so far, it would be difficult to argue that Moyers has been silenced. He left “Now” in December, but the program remains on the air. Moyers is back on PBS as the anchor of “Wide Angle,” a new series of documentaries about “the political, economic, and social forces shaping the world today.”
While CPB does not fund either series and therefore would have little direct ability to influence their presence on the air, McNamara said she was not aware of any instance where CPB has threatened to cut funding to any show because of balance concerns.
There seems to be greater evidence of interference in the process of putting programs on the air. CPB has recently made a conscious effort to back conservative counterparts to “Now” on Friday nights on PBS. Two right-leaning programs premiered last year, “The Journal Editorial Report,” a weekly discussion program hosted by Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, and “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered.” According to CPB, the Journal program received $4.5 million in funding last year while Carlson’s show received $900,000.
Tomlinson’s involvement in creating the Journal show was “over the edge of what’s appropriate for a member of the CPB board,” said Carpenter, the former CPB board member.
“We took our responsibilities very seriously to essentially stay out of involvement in the selection of funding for particular programs or program series. We did not get involved as a board in those decisions,” Carpenter said of her time on the board. “What we did was set broad strokes, priorities.”
In the C-SPAN interview, Tomlinson admitted speaking with Mitchell about increasing balance, but said the Journal show itself was devised by PBS and “funded by [an] independent funding process.” McNamara, the PBS spokeswoman, confirmed this account, saying that Mitchell and other PBS officials “wanted to work with Paul Gigot,” a longtime guest commentator on the “NewsHour,” not the corporation or Tomlinson.
CPB spokesman Eben Peck said the $4.5 million for the Journal show was only for starting the program, which now has corporate underwriters. The program will receive $750,000 from CPB in fiscal year 2005, which begins Oct 1.
The Carlson show resulted from collaboration between CPB and PBS to create a new public affairs show that some saw as an effort to balance “Now” with a conservative counterpart.
Tomlinson’s term as chairman of CPB ends in September, but he will remain on the board through 2006, and while much of the concern has been directed at him, greater interference may be looming. Cheryl Halpern, a CPB board member mentioned in The Washington Post as the top candidate to succeed Tomlinson as chair, has gone so far as backing “penalties” for unbalanced programming. In confirmation hearings for her seat on the board in 2003, Halpern said she supported the idea of “penalties” but did not detail what possible punishments would be, the Post reported.
CPB also has made other lasting moves some consider threatening to the independence of the media organizations it is supposed to fund, including hiring two ombudsmen to ensure balance and objectivity and selecting Patricia Harrison, a former Republican National Committee co-chairwoman, as CPB’s new president.
CPB’s inspector general is investigating both Harrison’s selection and Tomlinson’s decision to hire the consultant.