Targeting public broadcasting

Targeting CPB, NPR, and PBS

Run for cover, Big Bird!

The right-wing is so determined to stamp out all vestiges of non-conservative thought and speech that they have expanded their attack to a full-frontal attack on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the very agency created by Congress to give public broadcasting "maximum protection from extraneous [political] interference and control."

Leading the attack is Kenneth Tomlinson, made chairman of the board of CPB by President Bush in 2003. Since taking office Tomlinson has taken aim against National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for an alleged liberal bias. His most egregious move (that we know about) was to secretly hire a consulting firm to monitor the political views of guests on Now, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers.

Kenneth Tomlinson
Kenneth Tomlinson, CPB Chairman of the Board

Tomlinson is a Washington political insider with connections including being "chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other federally funded outlets that broadcast government-sponsored news and information around the world" (Washington Post, 19-May-05) and having served with Karl Rove in the 1990s on a predecessor board.

Congress is trying to do its part by cutting the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by 25%. In previous years, they attempted to "zero out" the CPB entirely.

This is classic Bush — Put the fox in charge of the hen house. The Bush administration is rife with lobbyists and business executives put in charge of the very agencies charged with regulating their own special interest. Rather than try to implement his agenda by legislation, Bush has mastered the art of doing it through regulation, which receives far less attention in the media, and is therefore less likely to be scrutinized until it is too late.

What's the beef? When pressed to cite examples of liberal bias in PBS and NPR programming, Tomlinson and his mouthpieces trot out two examples: Bill Moyers and Postcards from Buster.

George Neumayr, American Spectator
George Neumayr, American Spector,

Last night, George Neumayr from the American Spectator was a guest on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer during a ssegment on the battle over the CPB, taking on the role of apologist for Tomlinson. Said Neumayr,

I do see a pervasive bias. PBS looks like a liberal monopoly to me, and Bill Moyers is Exhibit A of that very strident left-wing bias. You can see it in also that recently canceled show Postcards from Buster, which is a cartoon depicting a rabbit that goes to Vermont to stay with a lesbian couple in order to learn about politically correct values. So I think the problem of bias is quite deep, and I applaud Ken Tomlinson for making an attempt to correct it.

There is so much that is so wrong with this statement:

  • Bill Moyers has retired, and Now is now hosted by David Brancaccio. Even so, Moyers frequently had conservative guests on his program.
  • Postcards from Buster was about a lot of different topics and the episode about the lesbian family was only one episode in a long series and never aired in many markets anyway, after the program was attacked by the right-wing and PBS lost its backbone.

Neumayr persisted in beating Bill Moyers' dead horse, even though another guest, a PBS station manager from Kansas City, pointed out that Moyers is no longer on the program. He went on later to ask, "Why are the American people financing with their tax dollars programming that offends them?"

"Why are the American people financing with their tax dollars programming that offends them?" Here are some programs that are being financed with my tax dollars and that offend me:

  • Capital punishment
  • "Star Wars" the missile-defense system
  • Most of the "war on drugs," especially the part directed toward medical marijuana
  • Tobacco subsidies
  • The Iraq war, launched on false and misleading pretenses

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The argument that public funds should never be used for something an individual citizen doesn't like or approve of is utterly specious. Just because someone doesn't read books doesn't mean we should not have public libraries. Or that all the books in the public library must be approved of and agreed with by every single citizen.

In a democracy, we adopt policies and establish rights based on consensus, not religious or political orthodoxy, and, as a result, the law of the land will sometimes entail spending tax dollars on things any particular individual may find objectionable. It's the price we pay for democracy.

(See Mario Cuomo's op-ed piece in the New York times for a much more eloquent formulation of that argument in the context of funding for stem-cell research.)

Now more than ever. Let's suppose for a moment that the critics are right, that NPR and PBS are liberally biased. I think a very good argument can be made that there is hardly a better time to guarantee liberal voices than when conservative voices have so much power both politically and in the media. In the interest of an enlightened and informed citizenry, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that a range of viewpoints is heard, not trying to stamp out the ones the "ins" don't agree with.