Turmoil over public airwaves is mostly static

To hear the most fervent, left-wing supporters of public radio and television tell it, the Bush administration is trying to silence public broadcasting. But, as usual, the truth is somewhat less cataclysmic.

Some "progressive" (their favorite word) supporters of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees National Public Radio and public television, have recently accused CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson of attempting kill public broadcasting by exploring the issue of "objectivity and balance." The liberal American Prospect magazine reacted to Tomlinson's quest for ideological balance by calling him "a commissar of political correctness" bent on "Soviet-style partisan patronage, cronyism and abuse." Wow! Those are serious accusations.

"How could any segment of the American people be opposed to common sense balance?" asked Tomlinson, who was appointed to the CPB Board by ex-President Clinton in 2000 and elevated to the chairmanship by President Bush two years ago. He argued that Section 19 of the Public Telecommunications Act directs the board to "review, on a regular basis, national public broadcasting programming for quality, diversity, creativity, excellence, innovation, objectivity and balance." Fair enough, but Tomlinson's critics see his actions as part of Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy."

"The conservative attack on independent journalism has begun to spread," warned a columnist from the liberal Boston Globe. The New York Times piled on (Are we surprised?) by accusing Tomlinson of attempting "to demonize and regulate one of the nation's most trusted news sources (PBS)."

Not to be outdone, veteran PBS anchor Bill Moyers, a highly partisan Democrat, saw Tomlinson's actions as "a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable." At this point, let's define "objective" or "independent" journalism - journalism that agrees with us. OK? Do we understand each other?

The conservative Weekly Standard came to Tomlinson's defense with an editorial asserting that "any government agency that touches on controversial subjects ... should cast a wide net, ideologically, if it is to count on the continued goodwill of the taxpayers and lawmakers who allocate money to pay for it." Which makes sense.

So let's examine the chairman's alleged sins. In response to congressional complaints about PBS programming focused on Moyers' weekly show, "Now," Tomlinson asked outside consultants to assess the ideological range of guests on the show in accordance with Section 19. Next, he hired a couple of veteran newsmen as ombudsmen to monitor program content and handle complaints. And finally, he created two new PBS shows with conservative hosts. Well, you can imagine the outrage from the left. That's how Tomlinson became a "commissar." Although Moyers retired from PBS, his program continues with a new host.

So-called "progressives" have controlled public broadcasting for many years as if it were their own private preserve and Tomlinson clearly represents a threat to their virtual monopoly over the ideological content of PBS and NPR. But he has repeatedly said that his goal "is to protect public broadcasting from the excesses of its own practitioners ... by resisting the leftward impulses that could endanger support from a politically diverse public." Is that a problem for the taxpayers?

Tomlinson's ideological balance bet paid off late last month when the Republican-dominated House of Representatives restored $100 million worth of budget cuts to the corporation. Among CPB's supporters was conservative Congressman Jim Gibbons of Reno, who said that "public broadcasting offers valuable programming for citizens across Nevada." Northern Nevada's public broadcasters are KNPB/TV (Reno's Channel 5) and University of Nevada radio station KUNR/FM.

Despite a budget victory, the battle lines are clearly drawn between Tomlinson and left-leaning supporters of NPR and PBS. And where will the standoff end? The Weekly Standard recognized "the difficulty ... of maintaining government-funded media in a cultural landscape that is crisscrossed with political tripwires," especially "in an era when the country's loudmouths, on the left and the right, refuse to agree on anything." I think that's an argument for privatizing CPB, which only receives about 15 percent of its annual funding from the federal government.

Perhaps Congress should finally take a serious look at the privatization of public broadcasting. This wouldn't necessarily mean the death of "Sesame Street" and Big Bird; rather, it would strengthen the cultural programming of private cable networks like A&E, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. I think it's worth a try. How about you?

n Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat who spent two years in public broadcasting at the Voice of America in Washington, D.C.


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