Against PBS's Mythical Bias
A front-page New York Times story (5/2/05) added to mounting evidence that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), under new chair Kenneth Tomlinson, is pressuring public television officials to produce more conservative programming and to rein in shows it perceives as liberal.
“The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is aggressively pressing public television to correct what he and other conservatives consider liberal bias,” reported the Times, adding that CPB pressure has prompted “some public broadcasting leaders–including the chief executive of PBS–to object that his actions pose a threat to editorial independence.” An unnamed senior FCC official used even starker terms, telling the Washington Post (4/22/05) that the CPB under Tomlinson “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.”
As a quasi-private non-profit institution, the CPB is tasked by Congress to distribute funds to public broadcasters with a view toward balance. Although it was intended to shield public broadcasting from political influence, the CPB has long since become a mechanism for transmitting Congress’ ideological desires to public broadcasters.
Tomlinson says the CPB is only trying to rectify liberal bias in public television–a dubious role for an official tasked with shielding public broadcasters from prevailing political winds. But Tomlinson has presented little evidence of any pervasive left-wing bias in public broadcasting; in fact, his only specific criticisms seem to be aimed at the program Now, which was, until recently, hosted by Bill Moyers.
Tomlinson was instrumental in the development and funding of the Journal Editorial Report, a program that features the Wall Street Journal‘s hard-right editorial board and was supposed to be a “balance” to Now (although unlike the Editorial Report, Now frequently had guests whose views differed from those of the show’s producers). The CPB’s ideological influence has increased as it has become increasingly staffed by White House=friendly board members and officials. In addition to Tomlinson, major Republican Party donors Cheryl Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines were added to the board in 2003. Earlier this year Ken Ferree, a former aide to FCC chair Michael Powell, was made both chief operating officer and interim president of the CPB.
If Tomlinson and his CPB colleagues are doling out public broadcasting funds based on the premise that PBS‘s left-wing slant must be corrected, then they should first be required to show the public that such a bias exists. Contrary to those familiar charges, a 1999 FAIR study (Extra!, 9=10/99) found that the news and public affairs programming available on PBS affiliates displayed an elite, pro-business slant.
If the CPB were truly interested in “balance” on public television, it would be asking why public TV regularly airs corporate-oriented business and investment programs (Nightly Business Report, CEO Exchange, Wall Street Week With Fortune) but has no shows devoted to labor or consumer rights. They might ask why PBS stations have long featured talkshows hosted by conservatives (McLaughlin Group, Think Tank With Ben Wattenberg, Tony Brown’s Journal) but none hosted by progressives. (The Tavis Smiley Show, arguably the closest thing to a progressive talkshow on public TV, mostly interviews actors, musicians and other cultural figures.)
PBS has also demonstrated a curious double-standard when it comes to policing conflicts of interest. In 1993, PBS distributed The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, a documentary series funded by PaineWebber, a company with significant oil interests; almost every expert featured was a defender of the oil industry. PBS carried Living Against the Odds, a 1991 special on “risk assessment” funded by the oil company Chevron that asserted, “We have to stop pointing the finger at industry for every environmental hazard.” In 2002, PBS distributed Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, a look at globalization funded by global corporate entities like BP, FedEx and Enron.
Yet PBS has rejected documentaries dealing with labor issues–even historical features dealing with 19th century labor struggles–because they received funding from labor unions. Defending Our Lives, a film about domestic violence, was rejected in 1993 because one of its producers was the leader of a battered women’s support group. In 1997, Out at Work, a film about workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, was rejected because it was partially funded by unions and a lesbian group.
The whole point of public broadcasting is to be an alternative to commercial media outlets–in part by creating a platform for dissenting, marginalized and controversial views that for-profit networks won’t air. To try and apply Republican appointees’ notions of “balance” to every PBS or NPR program, as the CPB has suggested, would almost certainly stifle those voices.