June 08, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Public broadcasting at the crossroads

Almost since its inception, public broadcasting in the United States has been a target of someone or other in the federal government.

Just a few years after Congress created the Public Broadcasting Service, the Nixon administration was trying to keep public affairs off of its airwaves in favor of strictly educational and cultural fare. Since then, elements of official Washington have tried to tamper with PBS programming or cut its funding.

More recently, that tampering came in the form of Newt Gingrich brandishing his "Contract with America" and promising to eliminate taxpayer funding for PBS and National Public Radio.

These days, public broadcasters may well wish their challenges were that simple. A decade ago, Congress backed off its plan to unfund public broadcasting after representatives were deluged with phone calls and letters from constituents.

The latest challenge to the institution is not to its funding (at least not directly) but to its editorial independence. And a resolution may not be as straightforward as a telephone lobbying campaign.

The Republican head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting --- the outfit that helps fund public broadcasting --- has been complaining about liberal bias on PBS. He challenged stations to air a more conservative balance of content and set out to monitor PBS for ideological slants. Regardless of how broadcasters react, or what the final outcome is, this mini-controversy draws attention to the changing landscape public media face in the 21st century.

To understand the position PBS --- and to a lesser extent NPR --- finds itself in, it's important to know a thing or two about how public broadcasting in the US operates. Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which allocated federal money to the newly established public stations, in 1967. But instead of simply handing money over to them, Congress created the non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting. From the beginning, CPB's raison d'etre was twofold. First, as a pass-through organization, it was intended to be a heat shield of sorts for broadcasters, protecting them from the potential influence of federal politics on programming.

But CPB was also given the role of "facilitat[ing]" the development and distribution of content "with a strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs ... of a controversial nature." That wording echoes language from the old FCC rule known as The Fairness Doctrine. A federal court overturned the doctrine in 1986 as a violation of the right to free speech, allowing stations to air whatever they wanted. In the commercial sphere, such freedom paved the way for the profitable Rush Limbaugh era. But for public broadcasters, the fairness constraints remained, written --- as they were --- into the legislation to which they owe their existence.

There's an inherent conflict in those two functions --- upholding balance and independence --- that make up CPB's mission. That's particularly true since, although the corporation is "not an agency or establishment of the United States government," the president (with Congress's consent) appoints the nine board members.

Now Kenneth Tomlinson, the head of CPB's board, is flexing the corporation's "fairness" muscle. What happens will reveal the extent of CPB's control over "objectivity and balance" at public stations. PBS, under the leadership of President and CEO Pat Mitchell, is resisting. In a tour that begins today (Wednesday, June 8) in Rochester, Mitchell will be traveling around the nation discussing PBS's future with its viewers and the public.

Tomlinson's complaints of liberal bias, and his actions connected with them, put him on the front page of the New York Times recently. His agenda for PBS, however, differs from those of past conservative movements.

Conservatives once sought to eliminate big-ticket government programs and expenditures --- including public broadcasting --- that weren't tied to defense or to a handful of other basic governmental functions. But the brand of conservatism ascendant in Washington these days is taking a shrewder approach, seeking to refashion those institutions in its own image. Tomlinson brings this tactic to broadcasting.

According to the Times, at a November address to the Association of Public Television Stations, Tomlinson told the stations plus PBS and CPB officials that programming should reflect the mandate Republicans had just received at the polls. (Tomlinson later said he meant it as a joke, but Mitchell and many others weren't amused.) Two Democratic representatives --- John Dingell of Michigan and David Obey of Wisconsin --- have called for an investigation into Tomlinson's activities.

A particular Tomlinson target has been Bill Moyers. The Times article revealed that Tomlinson had paid a consultant $10,000 to monitor Moyer's show Now with Bill Moyers. Tomlinson said the consultant's analysis found an anti-administration bias in the selection of Moyers' guests. Moyers left the show in December, before that analysis became public, but he has defended his choice of guests, which included prominent conservatives.

What some observers think made Moyers a lightning rod for criticism from the right was not his choice of guests but his editorializing. At the close of each show he offered his own thoughts. It should come as no surprise that Moyers, a former aide and press secretary to LBJ, would have views that tended toward the liberal. Yet for some reason --- perhaps the mix of news and commentary in the same show --- apparently not everyone could distinguish his interviews from his opinionated monologues.

"People somehow made the leap that this was a PBS position," says Norm Silverstein, president and CEO of WXXI.

Although Tomlinson has said that Now falls short of standards for balance, so far he has said he's not interested in tampering with the show (now hosted by David Brancaccio, formerly of Marketplace) or any other show. Instead, he wants to add more conservative programming into the mix.

With his backing, The Journal Editorial Report, an all-commentary show hosted by Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page, found a home on the airwaves of PBS member stations. (PBS spokesperson Lea Sloan hastens to point out that Mitchell herself had been trying to arrange to have the show aired on PBS stations for several years, well before Tomlinson entered the scene.)

A show hosted by conservative TV personality Tucker Carlson was also made available to public television stations, though Carlson's new job at MSNBC means he won't be aired on PBS after this month.

Moyers' show is only partly comparable to Gigot's, since it included hard news reporting complete with multiple viewpoints. Leaving that aside, the changes at PBS might seem reasonable. But Tomlinson also has another "reform" in mind for public broadcasting. In a highly unusual move, he recently announced that CPB was hiring two ombudsmen --- one liberal and one conservative --- to monitor PBS and NPR for signs of bias. He hired a White House staffer to write the standards under which the ombudsmen will work.

Another name for media ombudsmen is "public editor." These are professionals paid by a news organization to critique its coverage from within --- for bias, yes, but also for numerous other traits, from tastefulness to accuracy --- with the general public as the audience. Two things make Tomlinson's move unusual.

First, CPB isn't an organization that reports news. In fact, even PBS itself is only a member association of local public television stations; content is produced at the stationsand shared among them. (NPR, which does have a strong central news-gathering operation, already employs its own ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin.) The Organization of News Ombudsmen is considering amending its bylaws, excluding people who don't directly work for news organizations from full membership. The move comes in response to the creation of CPB's two ombudsman, who had applied for membership.

Second, it is unprecedented to appoint multiple watchdogs with competing views to second-guess a news organization, judging it specifically through an ideological lens. In a Boston Globe op-ed piece, Tom Ashbrook, who hosts a show that airs nationally on NPR, didn't mince words.

"Two ombudsmen?" he wrote. "One for liberals and one for conservatives? Parked outside of NPR and PBS and throwing down conflicting accusations? This is a bad idea. It sounds more like two battling censors-in-waiting. Let's not recreate Crossfire on NPR's doorstep or, worse, in its newsroom."

Still, when it comes to the public, Tomlinson may have the upper hand. The notion that truth --- or even fact --- lies halfway between two competing views is gaining currency.

In the midst of this challenge, public broadcasting is in a period of transition. That would have been true whether or not Tomlinson --- or any other Washington figure, for that matter --- had raised questions about ideological tilt.

The media landscape has changed almost beyond recognition from what it was in 1967. In a new media environment, public broadcasting will have to find a strong and unique identity if it wants to stay relevant.

As hard news reporting on radio has largely yielded to the news-talk format, NPR has managed to corner one such identity for itself, by filling the news gap that large corporate radio companies created. For television, it won't be that easy. Whereas PBS once provided the sole alternative to the Big Three broadcasters --- CBS, NBC, and ABC --- there are now hundreds of cable channels offering just about every kind of programming imaginable.

That's one reason why some media critics --- Slate's Jack Shafer and the LA Times' David Shaw --- have called for the end of public funding for broadcasting. Or at least a serious examination of that possibility.

Such a move would be a lot easier for NPR than for PBS. Only about 1 percent of NPR's funding comes from the federal government by way of CPB. Even NPR's member stations (which receive their CPB money individually) need it for only about 5 to 15percent of their budgets. The rest comes from pledges, large gifts, underwriting by foundations and corporations, and some state and local funds. Cutting loose from the federal money would weaken a few radio stations, but probably few if any would go off the air, observers say.

For public television, it's a different story. PBS got 9 percent of its money through CPB last year, part of federal funding that amounted to about 16 percent of its budget.

For member stations, the percentage can be higher. CPB funding represents about 11 percent of WXXI's combined radio and television budget. In Boston, WGBH-TV --- one of the largest public television stations --- gets 18 percent of its operating costs from CPB.

One solution, explored by Shafer and Shaw, is to sell off the valuable space that public TV and radio now occupy on the dial, and use the proceeds to seed an endowment that would make the broadcasters independent.

Of course, being independent from the feds is one thing; being independent, period, is another. A common criticism of this proposal is that it would thrust public broadcasters into deeper dependence on corporate largess. A mendicant media institution would hardly be in a position to produce hard-hitting, independent journalism.

A second option would be to accept more intrusion from the government as the price for financial stability. After all, some might reason, better the occasional political interference from the government than the constant pressure of the marketplace.

That might be a safe position for executives at NPR and PBS to take, but don't expect them to. Despite the gloomy and alarming statements from groups decrying Tomlinson's moves as a blatant Republican takeover of public broadcasting, there's no indication that broadcasters will cave to his pressure.

There's a third way, after all. The status quo: publicly-funded, independent media. That's something broadcasters are fighting for. After Tomlinson's critiques hit the media, Mitchell spoke out. Not only does she defend the steps she's taken to add quality programming, but she also defends the need for public funding.

PBS officials have also been marshaling an impressive array of information to back their fight to keep their funding and independence intact. One example: They're touting the fact that at 1.8, their national prime-time ratings tie them with UPN for sixth place, just behind WB and ahead of all the major cable players, including Fox News. (PBS's share of primetime viewers is triple CNN's.) Mitchell will likely cite this and other statistics pointing to PBS's growth and relevance when she visits.

In recent remarks to the National Press Club, she contrasted US contributions with those in the UK or Japan, where viewers pay $200 and $240 per TV set, respectively, to support public broadcasting.

"In America, we pay $1 per person, per year, for public television," she said. "All together, federal dollars account for about 15 percent of the funding for the public television system. The rest comes from significant support from foundations, corporations and 'viewers like you.'"

"If it is just 15 percent," she said, "you may ask, Can't you find that money somewhere else? The answer is no, because it's not just the money, it's the principle here: A democracy needs a public broadcasting service and public money invested in it, just like public money goes to public parks when there are plenty of private ones, and even with bookstores on every corner, we still need public libraries, supported by public funds."

Norm Silverstein agrees with that, but also hopes that recent events will spur action to shore up longer-term support.

"The current controversy could have a positive outcome if it encourages Congress to create a trust fund" for public broadcasting, he says. "Eliminating federal funding without a substitute is not the answer."

The other upside of the controversy is that it publicizes the transition period in which public broadcasters find themselves, bringing that dialogue back to the, well, public. During Mitchell's time here in Rochester, she'll not only be talking about bias and federal funding, but also about projects like PBS's "Digital Future Initiative," which is exploring the use of technology to expand what public broadcasters are capable of.

Mitchell in Rochester

Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, will host a dialogue about the future of public broadcasting at 7 p.m. today (Wednesday, June 8) at the Strong Museum Auditorium, One Manhattan Square. The event is free, but space is limited. Call Joann Sanfilippo at 258-0220.

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