Veterans of the battles over public broadcasting know the script by now: Right-wing Republicans denounce NPR and PBS for being too “liberal,” threatening to cut their federal funding. Public broadcasting’s defenders rally to “save” Big Bird and the like.
The difference this time around, though, is significant. The right-wing Republican is not a politician per se. He’s Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and thus the man in charge of distributing federal dollars to public broadcasters.
Tomlinson’s charges about the liberal bias of public broadcasting coincided with a congressional attempt to make deep cuts in the CPB’s operating budget. The CPB provides approximately $400 million a year to NPR and PBS—about 15 percent of the two entities’ combined budget.
The attempted cuts sparked significant protests, and on June 23 the House of Representatives voted to partially restore funding—considered at least a partial victory for the liberal and progressive groups who had called for restoring CPB funding. Soon thereafter, a Senate Appropriations Committee vote made the full restoration of CPB funding very likely.
But amidst the clamor over “saving” PBS, more important questions remain overlooked: Is public broadcasting delivering on its promise? Do PBS and NPR really serve as a true alternative to commercial broadcasting? Does the CPB really, as its mission statement proclaims, “encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities”?
The honest answer to each of these questions is no. Over the years, FAIR’s studies have found a distinctly pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt in PBS’s and NPR’s national news and public affairs programming (Extra!, 9-10/93, 9-10/99, 5-6/04). Though PBS is mandated to present a wider spectrum of opinion than for-profit media, it is often hard to distinguish the guestlists of public broadcasting’s programs from those of their commercial counterparts. And a big part of the reason public broadcasting has failed to live up to its potential is that the CPB has become a tool used by congressional conservatives to restrict programming within narrow political limits.
Media activists, independent producers and public broadcasting advocates need to ask themselves whether CPB funding is needed to keep public broadcasting afloat—or whether that government support compromises the very independence of PBS and NPR, and prevents them from ever fulfilling their promise.
PBS’s conservative tradition
The debate over the state of public broadcasting relies for its starting point on the tired, baseless charge that PBS and NPR harbor a left-leaning bias. Mainstream media discussions usually pit right-leaning critics against public broadcasting officials—thereby excluding progressive critics of the current system. A July 17 Washington Post article headlined “Fairness in the Balance: Public Broadcasting Is Under Scrutiny; Neither Side Seems to Like What It Sees” included conservative public broadcasting critics like the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot, Cato’s David Boaz, Rep. Ralph Regula (R.-Ohio) and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. Their views were “balanced” by insider defenders of public broadcasting—PBS vice president John Wilson and NPR vice president Ken Stern.
Similarly, a debate about PBS on PBS’s own NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (6/21/05) pitted George Neumayr of the conservative American Spectator against Bill Reed, president of Kansas City Public Television.
Thus the spectrum of debate is limited: Either you decry the pervasive liberal bias of public broadcasting (without, incidentally, having to actually prove it), or you uncritically defend the status quo.
Such debates usually fail to acknowledge the many shows with conservative hosts and perspectives carried on PBS stations over the years. For decades, William F. Buckley’s Firing Line was practically synonymous with public broadcasting, ending a record-setting 33-year run when the conservative National Review founder retired it in 1999. A rival to Fox News Channel could be launched with the list of conservatives who have hosted or produced shows on public television over the years: John McLaughlin (The McLaughlin Group, McLaughlin’s One on One), Peggy Noonan (On Values), Ben Wattenberg (Think Tank and Values Matter Most), Laura Ingraham and Larry Elder (National Desk), Tony Brown (Tony Brown’s Journal), William Bennett (Adventures From the Book of Virtues), Milton Friedman (Free to Choose, Tyranny of the Status Quo), Fred Barnes (National Desk, Reverse Angle), Morton Kondracke (Reverse Angle, American Interests) and Tony Snow (The New Militant Center). (With the exceptions of McLaughlin’s and Friedman’s shows, all of these received CPB funding.)
More recently, the progressive journalism of Bill Moyers’ Now inspired the CPB to fund two right-wing programs in response (FAIR Action Alert, 9/17/04): the uniformly right-wing Wall Street Journal-produced Journal Editorial Report, which currently airs on PBS, as well as Unfiltered, hosted by conservative pundit Tucker Carlson (who left the program in June 2005 to host an MSNBC show).
But Now (which Moyers retired from in 2004) is more plausibly seen as a balance to the rest of the public TV schedule. Corporate and investment-oriented shows such as Wall Street Week, Adam Smith’s Money World, The Nightly Business Report and CEO Exchange have long been a staple of PBS programming. Meanwhile, shows that might be seen as counterweights to the corporate agenda—shows featuring the views of environmental, labor, human rights and consumer rights voices—have had a hard time on PBS, which historically has practiced a double standard in regard to distributing critical documentaries and public affairs shows.
For instance, Out at Work, a 1997 film about workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, was rejected for distribution by PBS because it was partially funded by unions (Extra!, 1-2/98). PBS officials rejected The Money Lenders, a 1993 film about the World Bank, with the following wacky reasoning: “Even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected.” In turning down the human rights newsmagazine program Rights & Wrongs in 1993, PBS told its GlobalVision producers, “human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a PBS show.”
The rules that often block progressive documentaries from appearing on PBS don’t seem to apply to corporate-friendly shows. Thus in 1993 PBS aired The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, a pro-oil industry series funded by PaineWebber, a financial company with significant oil investments. James Reston: The Man Millions Read, which aired on PBS in 1993, was a flattering documentary about the New York Times’ most famous pundit, funded by and produced “in association with” the New York Times.
Rather than finding PBS to be hostile territory, right-wing foundations like Bradley, Olin and Scaife have had no trouble funding politically oriented documentaries. As public TV critic Jerry Landay wrote (Current, 6/11/01), “An informal scan through PBS public-affairs offerings from 1992 to the present turns up at least 17 instances in which a single program or continuing series underwritten or co-funded by BOS [Bradley-Olin-Scaife] served as a platform for the views of BOS grantees and their organizations.”
Even PBS’s flagship news show, the establishment-oriented News Hour With Jim Lehrer, favors the right on a weekly basis. For years the show has featured Friday segments pitting movement conservatives such as Paul Gigot and David Brooks against Mark Shields, a moderate whose own publicity once boasted that he was “free of any political tilt” (Extra!, 7-8/90).
Federal dollars and the CPB
His obsession with Moyers notwithstanding, Tomlinson has yet to present any credible evidence of PBS’s leftward drift; instead, he secretly contracted a right-wing ideologue to produce “studies” of PBS and NPR programming that were simply laughable. One study tallied “liberals” and “conseratives” as well as supporters and opponents of the administration; somehow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and former Republican Rep. Bob Barr both qualified as “liberals.” (Hagel got a 95 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union in 2002, while Barr got 100 percent.) Mainstream reporters were routinely labeled “Liberal/Democrat” or “Oppose Administration,” seemingly on the basis of profession alone. One segment about Iraq was coded “Oppose Administration” even though the researcher summarized it as giving “a guarded but optimistic view of the situation on the ground.”
With or without the dubious research, Tomlinson and his CPB allies seem intent on changing the political content of public broadcasting by steering it ever further to the right—and PBS leadership has traditionally cooperated with such efforts. As reported by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (6/7/04), PBS president Pat Mitchell met with Lynne Cheney and conservative television producer Michael Pack to discuss a possible PBS series about Cheney’s children’s books. Though the project seemed to stall, Pack was soon appointed senior vice-president for television programming at the CPB. Mitchell also reportedly responded to complaints from Newt Gingrich; Auletta reported that after Gingrich told Mitchell that there weren’t enough conservatives on PBS, Mitchell “proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS town-hall program.”
Interestingly, in the midst of all of the attention to the CPB’s fight against liberal bias, the agency quietly announced a round of grantees for its “America at a Crossroads” project (6/27/05). Among the projects receiving CPB support are The Case for War, a film about neoconservative Richard Perle made by Perle’s longtime friend Brian Lapping; The Sound of the Guns, a film about former CIA director William Colby made by Colby’s son; Soldiers of the Future, which “will tell the story of Donald Rumsfeld’s recent efforts to transform America’s military”; Warriors, in which American Enterprise editor Karl Zinsmeister argues that the U.S. military “attracts a cross-section of citizens motivated by idealism and patriotism”; and Studying Hatred, a film by David Horowitz co-author Peter Collier.
Bush administration manipulation of the CPB and its mission has been so pervasive that a senior FCC official told the Washington Post (4/22/05) that the CPB under Ken 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 the right-wing assault on public broadcasting continues, some progressives have rallied to the opposition with a campaign to “Save PBS.” While a desire to protect the principle of non-commercial media from right-wing attackers is understandable, these campaigns tend to be largely uncritical of the system and its funding mechanisms. Such support has been used by some on the right as proof that public broadcasting services such as PBS and NPR are indeed liberally biased. Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly (6/15/05), for example, sized up a “Save PBS” petition circulated by liberal Internet activists MoveOn.org this way: “There’s no greater evidence that those two concerns, PBS and NPR, partially paid for by we the people, are left-wing precincts.”
To the contrary, it’s evidence of how desperate progressive activists are for TV programming that acknowledges their points of view. From Fox News Channel to the 700 Club, conservatives have no shortage of outlets they can tune in to and feel at home; they have no reason to be grateful for a video version of the Wall Street Journal or yet another perch for Tucker Carlson. For progressives, though, a show like Now or the occasional left-leaning documentary on POV might be the one chance outside of public access to see their perspective actually framing the debate.
But those programs are, of course, the exceptions to the rule at PBS. With each successive attack from the right, public broadcasting becomes weakened, as programmers become more skittish and public TV’s habit of survival through capitulation becomes more ingrained.
Even if full CPB funding were restored and political cronies like Ken Tomlinson removed from their posts, the same potential for using the CPB appropriation process as a tool to force public broadcasting further to the right would still exist. If recent history is any guide, it would only be a matter of time until PBS would need to be saved once again—most likely at the cost of yet more concessions to the right.
If the CPB’s government funding contributes to the homogenization and stifling of independent voices on public broadcasting, how much effort should be made to fight to protect that funding? As long as there has been public broadcasting, there have been calls to create an alternative funding structure for PBS and NPR that would replace the CPB. Different fiscal schemes have been suggested, from selling unused spectrum to taxing commercial advertising or television sets (as Britain does for the BBC).
One such proposal, drafted by FAIR founder Jeff Cohen and Vassar professor William Hoynes and promoted by the group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), envisions an independent trust, perhaps funded by a tax on advertising or commercial broadcast license sales, that could generate $1 billion in annual funding for a robust, truly independent public broadcasting system. While that may sound ambitious, the trust recommendation pointed to some hopeful signs in recent history:
Would creating an independent revenue source for public broadcasting be hard work? Definitely. But in the absence of such a fundamental overhaul, advocates who want the public broadcasting system to be free of political interference and open to multiple points of view are doomed to be disappointed again and again.
“The Worst Sort of Political Hacks”
The political cronyism at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is nothing new; the history of the CPB is rife with political fear and favor. In his 1997 book Made Possible By . . . James Ledbetter described the CPB as a “political favor bank . . . used over the years as a dumping ground for the worst sort of political hacks.”
Former President Richard Nixon and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich played central roles in some of the more egregious manipulations of the CPB. Disturbed by public television programming he found antagonistic to White House interests, Nixon bent the CPB to his political will by manipulating the board’s makeup and pressuring its members. According to Ledbetter, Nixon “deliberately plotted to use his CPB appointees as spies, to use them to topple [Johnson-appointed] CPB chairman Frank Pace, and to quash public TV content he and his allies disliked.”
At one point Nixon successfully pressured the CPB—which was supposed to shield public broadcasters from political influence—to vote to cut off all funding for PBS news and public affairs shows.
When House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his intention to “zero out” public broadcasting funds in 1995, he charged the broadcasters with harboring a left-wing bias and argued for the privatization of noncommercial frequencies. Speaking to a group of political allies at the time, Gingrich said: “CPB still hasn’t seen the light. . . . They still don’t realize that the appropriation is gone, that the game is over. . . . The power of the speaker is the power of recognition, and I will not recognize any proposal that will appropriate money for the CPB.”
Gingrich eventually relented, and Congress passed a budget for the CPB—though it was smaller than originally expected. But the speaker’s bullying had its most profound effect on programmers, who shied away from sensitive or politically controversial topics following the assault (Extra!, 3-4/95).
The CPB has been put to political use by Democratic administrations as well. As news director for the progressive Pacifica Radio Network in 1999, Dan Coughlin says he was pressured by Pacifica management to “tone down” criticism of the Clinton White House, particularly with regard to the war in Yugoslavia. The source of the pressure? The CPB. According to Coughlin, he was told following meetings between Pacifica management and Clinton-appointed CPB chair Robert Coonrod (Mediafile, 11/8/03), “The CPB wanted me to tone down the news coverage, to be more ‘balanced,’ as they put it.”
It’s a familiar pattern, according to Ledbetter: “Throughout the 30-year history of public broadcasting, its taxpayer subsidy has repeatedly been used as a club. . . . Like a dog that has learned to flinch at the mere pantomime of its master’s lashing, public broadcasters know how to avoid topics and methods of criticism that might bring down the hand of rebuke.”