Issue 98, Summer 2005

by Joan E. Bertin

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), was enacted by Congress to establish an alternative to commercial television to inform, enlighten, and enrich the public and reflect America’s common values and cultural diversity. The Corporation has broad oversight authority over National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). A significant mandate of the agency is to protect their independence and insulate programming from partisan politics.

Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the CPB, one of five Republicans on the nine-person Board, has put a new spin on its role. He wants to correct what he considers a liberal (and anti-Israel) bias in PBS news and public affairs programming.

To that end, without informing the Board, he hired a consultant to monitor Bill Moyers’ show Now for "anti-Bush" and "anti-business" biases, and he promises to monitor Middle East coverage on NPR. However, CPB’s own survey showed that listeners and viewers do not believe the programming is biased. The "balance" has already changed: at CPB’s urging, PBS added two new programs featuring conservative views–Paul Gigot with The Journal Editorial Report, and talk-show commentator Tucker Carlson, who has since left. Additionally, CPB has appointed ombudsmen–one presumably liberal and the other conservative, to "bring balance" to public broadcasting.

And now Congress wants to cut funding.

In a speech to the National Conference on Media Reform on May 15, Bill Moyers, who has recently retired from Now, called some of the charges by Tomlinson and CPB "disturbing, and even dangerous." Now was created, according to Moyers, at a time when studies of public television found that political discussion on public affairs programs offered "a narrow range of perspectives on current issues…Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted through the views of business people, investors and business journalists…Non professional workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general public were rarely heard." Now’s mission was to include a diversity of opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. "That," said Moyers, "created a political backlash…we were telling stories that partisans in power didn’t want told and we were getting it right-not rightwing…I’ve always thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing. The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. And both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it’s no longer an eagle, and it’s going to crash."

Whether it is public affairs programs or kids’ shows like Postcards From Buster that are censored, public broadcasting won’t flourish as a political football. Public broadcasting doesn’t serve the public unless it’s independent.