The relentless right-wing campaign to eliminate all independent and critical voices from the public sphere continues unabated. First, they forced Howard Stern -- no hero of mine but a defender of free speech and a thorn in the side of the hated Bushies nonetheless-- off commercial radio. Then they got CBS anchor Dan Rather to resign (just for practicing semi-hard-hitting journalism). Now, they're hellbent on ousting even the lukewarm liberals at CPB and PBS. Scary stuff.
New Scrutiny of PBS Has Raised Political Antennas
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C01
Liberal commentator Bill Moyers is out on PBS stations. Buster the
animated rabbit is under a cloud of suspicion. And right-wing yakkers
from the Wall Street Journal editorial page have been handed their own
public-television chat show.
Some observers, including people inside the Public Broadcasting
Service, see these recent developments as troubling. PBS, they say, is
being forced to toe a more conservative line in its programming by the
Republican-dominated agency that provides about $30 million in
federal funds to the Alexandria-based service.
Officials at the agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, say
they are merely seeking to ensure balance and fairness in the
network's presentation of political news and ideas.
Under its mandate from Congress, which created the agency in 1967,
CPB is required to act as an independent buffer between lawmakers
and public broadcasters, although it can set broad programming
goals. Appointees of President Bush currently control the majority of
seats on CPB's eight-member board. Each board member serves a
Typically one of the quietest bureaucracies in Washington, the
quasi-governmental CPB has been unusually active in recent weeks.
CPB this month appointed a pair of veteran journalists to review public
TV and radio programming for evidence of bias, the first time CPB has
sought such oversight in its 38-year history. PBS officials were
unaware that the corporation intended to review its news and public
affairs programs, such as "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and
"Frontline," until the appointments were publicly announced.
In negotiations with PBS earlier this year, the corporation also insisted,
for the first time, on tying new funding to an agreement that would
commit the network to strict "objectivity and balance" in each of its
programs -- an idea that PBS's general counsel described in an
internal memo as amounting to "government encroachment on and
supervision of program content, potentially in violation of the First
Late last week, CPB's board declined to renew the contract of its chief
executive, Kathleen Cox, a veteran administrator at the agency. She
was replaced by Ken Ferree, a Republican who had been a top adviser
to Michael Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications
Commission. The Ferree appointment followed the dismissals or
departures in recent months of at least three other senior CPB officials,
all of whom had Democratic affiliations.
"We don't want to be alarmist, but I would be less than honest if I said
there wasn't concern here," said one senior executive at PBS, who
insisted on anonymity because CPB provides about 10 percent of its
annual budget. "When you put it all together, a pattern starts to
A senior FCC official, who would not speak for attribution because he
must rule on issues affecting public broadcasting, went further, saying
CPB "is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but
to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like a right-wing
coup. It appears to be orchestrated."
In an interview yesterday, CPB board chairman Ken Tomlinson called
such comments "paranoia," and said critics of CPB's initiatives should
"We're only seeking balance," said Tomlinson. "I am concerned about
perceptions that not all parts of the political spectrum are reflected on
public broadcasting. [But] there are no hidden agendas."
Asked for specific examples of slanted or unfair programming,
Tomlinson declined to name any. "You've heard the same complaints
of bias that I have in congressional hearings year after year," he said.
In fact, congressional Republicans have been generally critical of
public broadcasting's news and informational programming for years,
saying it favors liberal ideas. These criticisms fueled a movement led
by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to "zero out" CPB's federal
funding a decade ago. Those efforts failed; federal appropriations to
CPB have grown 40 percent since then, to some $386.8 million this
year. About 90 percent of this money is passed directly to public radio
and TV stations, which then pay fees to PBS and National Public Radio
for programming such as "Nova" and "All Things Considered."
However, conservatives recently were exercised that Moyers -- an
outspoken liberal -- was involved in hosting a weekly newsmagazine
called "Now." (Moyers left the show in December, citing personal
reasons.) PBS responded, in part, by trying to recruit Gingrich to host a
weekly program. It wound up developing public affairs shows starring
the Wall Street Journal's conservative pundits and Tucker Carlson, a
columnist for the conservative Weekly Standard and a co-host of CNN's
"Crossfire." (Carlson has since left PBS and CNN for a job at MSNBC.)
In January, PBS came in for more criticism, this time a rebuke from
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings over an episode of a children's
travelogue program in which a rabbit character named Buster paid a
visit to two families headed by lesbians. PBS pulled the episode from
distribution to stations around the country.
Tomlinson would not comment on specific programs. He said CPB's
efforts were aimed at making "incremental changes that meet the
needs of the American people and the aspirations of the American
The corporation's own research indicates broad public satisfaction with
the quality of news programming on PBS and NPR. A series of focus
group sessions and two national surveys conducted by two polling
firms -- the Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry & Associates -- found
few perceptions of bias in PBS's or NPR's reporting in 2002 and 2003.
For example, among people who identified themselves as "news and
information consumers," 36 percent said PBS's coverage of the Bush
administration in 2003 was "fair and balanced," and 46 percent offered
no opinion. Eleven percent judged NPR's coverage of the Middle East
to be biased, and this group split almost equally between those who
felt NPR was biased toward Israel and those who felt it was biased
toward the Arab or Palestinian side.
Wayne Godwin, PBS's veteran chief operating officer, said in an
interview yesterday that he wanted to give CPB's new chief executive,
Ferree, some time before he drew conclusions. "They're in such a
significant state of flux at this time that we want to be fair in looking
it," he said.
He added, "I don't know that Ken [Tomlinson] is or is not trying to
change our programming. . . . I will say there is reason to remain aware
and vigilant to what is going on. The long run will determine if he wants
Tomlinson said his goal is to seek increases in federal funding of
public broadcasting in order to strengthen it in an increasingly
competitive media environment. "Public TV, public broadcasting, is in
trouble," he said. "It will wither and die if we continue the way we have.
That's why it's so important for us to rally national support for it. If we
don't have true excellence, we won't be able to gain the support we
need. We have to make sure that these [programming] concerns don't
prevent us from gaining the national consensus we need."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company