4.26.2005

The Privatization of PBS

According to people within the Public Broadcasting Service, the supposedly politically independent PBS "is being forced to toe a more conservative line in its programming" by its oversight agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is being stacked with right-wing appointees. Over the past few years, President Bush has attempted to flood the CPB board with partisan political operatives. The result, according to a senior FCC official, is that today CPB "is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated."

STACKED BOARD: Created in the 1960s, CPB was purposefully designed as an independent body in order to provide a buffer between the independent public broadcast networks and the partisan government. In fact, Congress funds CPB two years in advance to "shield it from momentary bursts of partisan anger" and keep PBS safe from the muck of daily politics. That was then. Now, the chairman of the CPB board is Kenneth Tomlinson, a close friend of uber-strategist Karl Rove and an individual who has contributed thousands to Republicans over the past decade. President Bush also nominated Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern, individuals who have given more than $816,000 to conservative causes over the past 14 years, to the CPB Board of Directors. Interestingly enough, Gaines was a key fundraiser for Newt Gingrich back when the House speaker campaigned to "zero out" CPB funding and privatize PBS.

A CORPORATION IN HIS OWN IMAGE: In recent months, at least three senior CPB officials – all of whom had left-leaning associations – have departed or been dismissed, making the effects of the stacked deck even more apparent. Last week, CPB's board decided not to renew the contract of its chief executive, Kathleen Cox, choosing instead to replace her with Kenneth Ferree. Before becoming the chief executive of CPB, Ferree was at the Federal Communications Commission, where he "played a significant role in the failed effort to loosen rules" for giant media conglomerates to consolidate their empires. (It was backlash from the American public that defeated his efforts.) Now Ferree is at CPB, but not because of his love for public broadcasting. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Ferree admitted to not watching much PBS, not even its flagship show, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which he called "slow." In Ferree's own words, "I don't always want to sit down and read Shakespeare, and Lehrer is akin to Shakespeare. Sometimes I really just want a People magazine."

THE LYNN CHENEY SHOW: In addition to stacking the board of CPB, the administration hired Michael Pack, a producer with close ties to the Bush administration. How close? In 2002, Pack greeted outgoing PBS President Pat Mitchell at Vice President Cheney's house with an "inappropriate" proposal for a children's series featuring the vice president's wife, Lynn Cheney.

DESPERATELY SEEKING CENSORSHIP: The Public Broadcasting Act prohibits CPB from interfering with public TV's programming, but someone may need to remind its Board of Directors. During her confirmation hearings, new board member Cheryl Halpern advocated a policy of "aggressive" censorship and suggested CPB should be allowed to penalize and "remove physically" broadcasts it decides are unbalanced. In fact, media watchdog groups accused the Bush administration of using a "litmus test" to select board members; the White House reportedly sunk the candidacy of a nominee who stated CPB should intervene in programming only in "extraordinary circumstances." And now the current board is starting to do the job for which it was apparently hired, tightening its grasp over programming content. Earlier this year, for the first time in its history, the CPB insisted on tying any new PBS funding to "an agreement that would commit the network to strict 'objectivity and balance'" in its programs. But its supposed quest for "objectivity and balance" is decidedly subjective. On its website, the CPB claims it'll listen to the opinions of public officials and keep them under wraps: "These opinions may be expressed in … private conversations with CPB board members and other officials."

TILTING AT "LIBERAL" WINDMILLS: CPB's own research shows that there is already "objectivity and balance" within PBS. According to two different national polls and a series of focus group sessions, the American public thinks there is no real bias in PBS. The group Fairness and Accurate Reporting claims CPB has it wrong – public broadcasting isn't designed to balance a right/left tilt: "If anything, PBS (and public broadcasting in general) is theoretically designed to balance the voices that dominate the commercial media." The national media watchdog group continues on to point out, "As the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act proposed, public broadcasting should have 'instructional, educational and cultural purposes' and should address 'the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.'"

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