TOPICS > Politics

Public Broadcasting Hearings

July 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


PATRICIA HARRISON: I believe that public broadcasting is in the public interest, that it furthers the general welfare of all our citizens.

TERENCE SMITH: Those were the opening remarks at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing of the new president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, who’s been on the job just five days.

PATRICIA HARRISON: Public broadcasting strengthens our civil society and it merits the investment of monies represented by our budget for ’06 and ’08.

TERENCE SMITH: Harrison selection at the behest of CPB Board Chairman Ken Tomlinson earlier had been criticized as overtly political by PBS station members and Democratic members of the board.

Today’s hearing focused on federal funding for PBS next year and perceptions of ideological bias in its public affairs programming. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a long-time supporter of public broadcasting, argued for full funding.

Last month, the House slashed more than $100 million earmarked primarily for children’s programming and digital conversion of PBS stations.

SEN. TED STEVENS: Members of the Congress ought to calm down. This system needs our support. I do believe that this is an essential service. I think you’re all here today to really react to the cause of that deletion. I think our job is to put the money back and convince them that there has been a wakening call.

TERENCE SMITH: But Sen. Stevens also expressed concern about alleged bias in some of the network’s public affairs programming.

SEN. TED STEVENS: There are signs in portions of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the broadcasting service to — which indicates that there are unfortunate trends in some places to take up on political issues in a way that demonstrates a bias. It is my judgment that there should be no bias, no leaning to the right or to the left.

TERENCE SMITH: PBS president Pat Mitchell defended the network’s record in response to Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who asked whether she believed there was bias in PBS programming.

PAT MITCHELL: We take every allegation of that very seriously. And last year out of 3,000 hours there were less than 30 hours that rose to what we would consider any kind of questionable controversy.

But two years ago we looked at our editorial standards and said they need to be updated. We need to be very clear with our producers what we expect from them in terms of fairness and objectivity, accuracy and transparency. So we clarified it.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Is your answer no?

PAT MITCHELL: The answer is: We work very hard to ensure that there isn’t. And when there is an opinion or a point of view, Senator, we are very clear that that’s what the viewer is hearing. It is someone’s point of view, someone’s commentary.

TERENCE SMITH: CPB Chairman Tomlinson himself stirred controversy recently when it was revealed that that he hired a consultant, Frederick Mann, last year to examine four programs including “Now” with then host veteran broadcaster Bill Moyers for evidence of bias among its guests. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, citing public opinion polls supporting PBS, asked him about the study.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: It strikes me as odd, Mr. Tomlinson that we are on this crusade of a sort here, this mission to change what’s going on. I don’t quite get it, understand what your agenda is here and what you’re trying to achieve.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Bill Moyers is a very capable broadcaster. But it seems to me we should be able to agree that we don’t want bias and if we do in the interest of provoking debate, if we have some bias on public television, let’s balance it out in the course of the evening.

TERENCE SMITH: Durbin questioned whether it was Tomlinson himself who decided to put on the air what he deemed a conservative program, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Report.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Did you feel that it was your responsibility or authority to go out and put together the Wall Street editorial page show?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I felt that the law required us to reflect balance in our current affairs programming. Balance is common sense.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: But, Mr. Tomlinson the people I said at the outset already decided. They thought that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was presenting balance and they thought that, you know, they gave a high approval rating. You have perceived a problem here, which the American people obviously don’t perceive. Now we have something from the Wall Street Journal. Would you call that conservative advocacy? Would you?


SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I guess what troubles me then is why you had to put this pressure on Mr. Moyers. I don’t understand that.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I think if I had, he would have responded in kind. He doesn’t respond well to pressure.

TERENCE SMITH: Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii who also expressed support for full funding for PBS challenged Tomlinson on his role in getting the panel of Wall Street Journal editorial writers on PBS.

SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: Is it appropriate for the chairman of the board to secure private funding from the corporate world for the Journal Editorial Report hosted by Mr. Paul Gigot.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: The decision to add Paul Gigot and the Wall Street Journal Editorial Report was one that involved a lot of people at both PBS and CPB. It was a decision that I saw no opposition to, and I was not directly involved in negotiating any contracts involved — involving in it.

SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: You had no role to play in that.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I certainly thought it was a good idea. And I thought it was an important idea because of the importance of having balance in current affairs broadcasting. I would never put the Wall Street Journal show on alone.

Again as Sen. Stevens said, no bias, make it neutral. Make it common sense. If you have a liberal show, have a conservative show, one in the middle. If you have a conservative show, have a liberal show. This is, to me, common sense and it’s good for public broadcasting.

TERENCE SMITH: Tomorrow the subcommittee will markup the public broadcasting budget for next year and on Thursday the full Senate committee will take it up.