by Michael Winship
Gentle audience, last spring, at the cliffhanger end of our season finale, public broadcasting was in a pickle. Conservative House Republicans were threatening to cut $100 million from the budget of the nonprofit, federally financed Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the largest single funder of American public television and radio.
Around the same time, it was revealed that, without telling his board, CPB Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson had paid a conservative media consultant named Fred Mann $15,000 to monitor the political leanings of guests appearing on such programs as "NOW with Bill Moyers" on PBS and the Diane Rehm and Tavis Smiley shows on public radio. It smacked of a blacklist.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by Congress to be a firewall between public broadcasting and partisan politics. But Tomlinson, a Republican and former editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, was accused of attempting to use CPB to push a right wing agenda onto the public broadcasting airwaves, threatening its editorial independence.
(The usual full disclosure: off and on, I have worked in public broadcasting for some thirty years, often as a colleague of Mr. Moyers. Even fuller disclosure: for a year, I was a paid consultant to the video division of Reader's Digest. I cover the waterfront.)
Tomlinson insisted that he simply was trying to insure balance, although several surveys -- including two that Tomlinson funded -- indicated that virtually none of the audience perceived any bias, and, in fact, trusted public broadcasting's credibility more than any other network's. Many, including me, called for Tomlinson's resignation.
Since then, better times. Public broadcasting's supporters, tens of thousands of them, protested the Congressional cuts and in a landslide vote -- Democrats joined by more than 80 Republicans -- the House restored the $100 million to CPB.
Tomlinson held on through the remainder of his two-year term as CPB chairman, but last week was forced to resign his membership on the board, several months early. His departure came in the wake of the preliminary findings of the CPB inspector general who, at the request of Congressmen John Dingell and David Obey, investigated the payment to Fred Mann, as well as other Tomlinson transactions. These include possible undue White House influence and the unauthorized hiring of two Republican lobbyists to campaign against legislation that would have expanded the CPB board to include more broadcasters. A full report is to be issued November 15.
The CPB investigation is in tandem with a similar government investigation of Tomlinson's activities in his other job as chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other United States-sponsored networks broadcasting to foreign countries.
According to Saturday's New York Times, the investigation began at the behest of Congressman Howard Berman, who "received complaints about Mr. Tomlinson from at least one employee at the board, officials said. People involved in the inquiry said it involved accusations that Mr. Tomlinson was spending federal money for personal purposes, using board money for [CPB] activities, using board employees to do [CPB] work and hiring ghost employees or improperly qualified employees...
"In recent weeks, State Department investigators have seized records and e-mail from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, officials said. They have shared some material with the inspector general at [CPB], including e-mail traffic between Mr. Tomlinson and White House officials including Karl Rove."
Rove, it seems, is a close friend of Tomlinson's and, the Times noted, "played an important role in Tomlinson's appointment as chairman of the broadcasting board."
Interesting developments, and in some ways a microcosm of the problems that in general seem to be snapping at the Bush administration's rear end.
But public TV and radio ain't out of the woods yet, not by a long stretch. Last month, the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 conservative GOP House members, proposed cutting $102.1 billion in this year's budget, including the elimination of CPB, to offset the recovery costs of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Study Committee Chairman, Rep. Mike Pence, now says he doesn't foresee zeroing out CPB -- it's not part of either the current House or Senate budget reduction plans -- but down the road he wouldn't rule it out.
What's more, Ken Tomlinson's ignominious departure still leaves behind a stable of similarly inclined confederates to carry on his conservative crusade. His replacement as CPB chair, real estate developer Cheryl F. Halpern, has in the past suggested that producers be penalized for any programming deemed biased by CPB, a violation of the Public Broadcasting Act. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she and her husband, Fred, ranked among the top 100 contributors to the GOP during last year's elections, donating more than $220,000.
Her vice chair, Gay Hart Gaines, who trained as an interior designer and is president of the Palm Beach Republican Club, was a founder and former chair of GOPAC, the political action committee that powered Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" campaign. According to The Nation, since 1998, she and her husband have contributed half a million dollars to "GOP causes."
(In the past, the CPB chair and vice chair have been split between a Republican and a Democrat.)
Tomlinson also engineered the hiring of former Republican National Committee co-chair Patricia de Stacy Harrison as CPB president and CEO. Harrison, who was an assistant secretary of state and acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs before Bush friend Karen Hughes took over, was criticized last week by a coalition of media reform activists for bringing to CPB three associates from the State Department p.r. operation. Two of them also have been active in Republican politics and fundraising. One, Helen Mobley, worked for GOPUSA.com, the Texas-based organization that gave us male escort/phony White House reporter Jeff Gannon.
According to Common Cause President Chellie Pingree, "The packing of CPB with individuals more comfortable with selling the United States overseas than with honest criticism of their government sends a not-so-subtle signal to those working in public broadcasting that truth is out and spin is in."
The current situation cries out for the creation of a long-dreamed-of trust fund for public broadcasting, free of partisan interference from either side, and the adoption of several recommendations presented last week by the Association of Public Television Stations. They include increasing the size of the CPB board to include five voting ex officio members from national arts, cultural and scientific organizations; a requirement that four of the political appointments be representatives of public radio and television stations; requiring that the chair and vice chair be from different parties; fewer closed meetings of the board; and prohibiting the hiring of outside political lobbyists or consultants.
All these proposed reforms are small, tentative steps toward an ideal, one perhaps best expressed in 1966 by the essayist E. B. White in a letter to the first Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. In words as well known to veteran public broadcasters as the Pledge of Allegiance, White wrote:
"Non-commercial TV should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability -- which is what keeps commercial TV from climbing the staircase. I think TV should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills.
"It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky's, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.
November 15, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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