Full-blown panic erupted in the councils of public broadcasting when a House Appropriations subcommittee declared its intention to cut $100 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting next year and zero out CPB funding in two years. John Lawson of the PBS-station lobby called it “attempted murder” of the system. National Public Radio Vice President Ken Stern blamed CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson for creating a climate for budget cuts with “irresponsible” talk of liberal bias.
What did Tomlinson do? Liberals were outraged that he made an effort to learn about the content of public broadcasting, that he hired a private consultant to monitor shows—especially the tilted “Now” program of Bill Moyers—to assess their record for fairness and balance. In April, CPB appointed two ombudsmen of different ideologies, longtime Reader’s Digest editor Bill Schulz and former NBC reporter and anchor Ken Bode, to listen to viewer complaints and evaluate public broadcasting on the CPB website.
No More Heat Shield
Public broadcasters responded with outrage. Retiring Kansas City PTV President Bill Reed e-mailed Tomlinson, denouncing his “sad, ridiculous witch hunt at a time when we should be standing together to make sure public broadcasting is funded adequately…. You and those board members who support you should be sacked.” Liberal groups such as Free Press, Common Cause and Media Matters for America leaped into action to preserve the liberal-dominated status quo. The left-wing Internet activists at MoveOn.org told its supporters straight out that conservatives were trying to shut down anti-Bush media outlets: “The lawmakers who proposed the cuts aren’t just trying to save money in the budget—they’re trying to decimate any news outlets who question those in power. This is an ideological attack on our free press.”
Tomlinson was clearly breaking from the CPB tradition of see no bias, hear no bias, speak no bias. The standard operating procedure at CPB was to serve as a “heat shield,” protecting PBS and NPR from any troublesome complaints about bias from Congress or the public. In 1994, when faced with far-left but CPB-funded Pacifica radio stations that were broadcasting “Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend,” complete with anti-white and anti-Semitic ranting, then-CPB Chairman Richard Carlson said the idea of analyzing the content of individual programs (or even punishing Pacifica with smaller CPB grants) was extremely problematic: “I believe the problems that would be created by doing this are limitless.” The heat shield became a hate shield.
Other sources inside the public broadcasting world have found a liberal bias on PBS. In an article last November for Current, a newspaper for PBS insiders, writer Louis Barbash found that a six-month review of the weekly Moyers program “Now” showed that “of the 75 segments over six months that treated controversial issues like the Iraq War, the state of the economy and the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics, only 13 included anyone who spoke against the thrust of the segment.” That study hasn’t been included in alarmed front-page reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times on “alleged” public-broadcasting bias.
Even as the budget-cut talk rises, PBS and NPR are still thumping a liberal tub. The June 3 edition of “Now”—reduced after Moyers left to a half-hour starring David Brancaccio—recently began by suggesting House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) was soft on slavery: “Have his favors to lobbyists led him from family values to supporting virtual slavery?” The slavery charge came from union lobbyists opposing low-wage labor in the Mariana Islands, where clothing sellers can ship their products with the “Made in the USA” label on it. PBS picked up the labor complaint and ran with it.
On June 3, NPR touted its first interview with Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, even though its reporter, Mara Liasson, had helpfully described Dean in February as a “staunch centrist” and “deficit hawk.” Morning anchor Steve Inskeep noted Dean “drew criticism several months ago for a public statement that began, ‘I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for.’ The rest of his statement got less attention, even though it’s at least as interesting.” The rest of the statement, Dean told Inskeep, was, “‘but I admire their business model for running campaigns.’ Something like that.” Can anyone imagine NPR trying to downplay it if a Republican had declared all-encompassing “hate” for the Democrats? Or calling the statement “interesting”?
But on March 1, Inskeep grilled Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman, beginning by suggesting the GOP exploited racism: “You mentioned the party of Lincoln. This is also the party that made a historic calculation in the 1960s to welcome former Democrats who had opposed civil rights. Do you think it is necessary for your party to acknowledge that a mistake was made?”
Despite PBS and NPR officials’ denying they have a problem, the examples of liberal bias in public broadcasting pile up daily. Will the latest threat to federal funding cause them to reconsider their content? The last threat of funding reductions in 1995 certainly didn’t accomplish much. The denial of federal funding (which makes up about 15% of the PBS budget) is not “murder” of the system—especially when Public Broadcasting Report noticed in 1995 that station donation levels went up 15% to 40% when federal funding was in question.
The best way to test what the New York Times calls the “proven indispensability of public broadcasting” is for Congress to go ahead and zero out its federal funding and let the people who can’t live without it pay the bills for a change.