Public Broadcast(igation)

For many years, conservatives have warned us that someday the commissars of political correctness would run amok and impose their opinions on us with our own tax dollars. What they didn't tell us is that they would become those commissars, and that their politically correct orthodoxy would be the Republican Party line. But that's exactly what the Bush administration's broadcasting apparatchiks appear to be doing at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The official suspected of extending partisan political control over the public airwaves is Kenneth Tomlinson, a former Reader's Digest editor known for his right-wing opinions and Republican affiliations, including a close alliance with the president's chief political and policy adviser, Karl Rove.

Some executives who have observed Tomlinson's bureaucratic maneuverings closely warn that he is imposing a “right-wing agenda” on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), while he insists that his critics suffer from paranoia and that his only goal is “balance.”

He means “balance” as in “fair and balanced.”

Tomlinson is staffing the CPB with Rove loyalists. He recently hired Mary Catherine Andrews, a White House communications official, to set up a new “office of the ombudsman” that will oversee public-TV and radio content. Commencing work on this project while still employed by Rove, she “helped draft the office's guiding principles,” according to The New York Times.

One of the two new ombudsmen is William Schulz, another former Reader's Digest veteran known for his reliably Republican attitude when he ran the magazine's Washington bureau. The other is Ken Bode, a DePauw University journalism professor and retired TV correspondent who is also a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.

That certainly looks like a fair and balanced team.

Tomlinson ousted the corporation's former president, Kathleen Cox, whose politics were deemed suspicious, replacing her with Kenneth Ferree, a partisan Republican who used to work at the Federal Communications Commission. Ferree is merely an interim appointee, however. His permanent replacement is likely to be Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

While Harrison has no known qualifications for the post, she has earned lavish praise from her fellow Republicans. Ken Mehlman, who now serves as the party chairman, has said that her training programs for GOP volunteers ensured the Bush victory in 2000. The Washington Times described her as “a cruise missile” who caused “general havoc” for the Democrats and “earned the respect of the GOP apparatus.”

Obviously she's fair and balanced, too.

Tomlinson's excuse for all this Soviet-style partisan patronage, cronyism, and abuse is “liberal bias.” He doesn't like to talk specifics, but he grumbles frequently about Now, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers, a program that seemingly outweighs all the conservative and corporate programming sponsored on PBS since the inaugural broadcast of William F. Buckley's Firing Line in 1966, including The McLaughlin Group, Peggy Noonan on Values, Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank, Adam Smith's Money World, Wall $treet Week, and National Desk featuring Laura Ingraham, Fred Barnes, and Larry Elder. To that long list is added Tucker Carlson's Unfiltered and The Wall Street Journal Report, a program featuring the windy ideologues of that newspaper's ultra-right editorial board. (The same show was canceled a couple of years ago by CNBC, but now will receive $4 million in public subsidy. So much for the verdict of the free market.)

Despite Tomlinson's claims, the system's integrity isn't in doubt. Actually, he knows that because he commissioned -- and has since tried to conceal -- two audience surveys that found remarkably high levels of national confidence in public broadcasting.

The first poll, conducted in 2002, showed little concern about liberal bias. That finding didn't please Tomlinson, so the CPB commissioned a second survey taken during the summer of 2003. A bipartisan team of professional pollsters reported finding an 80-percent “favorable” rating for PBS and NPR. More than half of the 1,008 adults questioned said they believe that PBS is more “trustworthy” than ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and FOX News. Nearly half think that the government should spend more money on the kind of “in-depth” programming provided by the public-broadcasting services.

In other words, the American people already consider PBS and NPR “fair and balanced” in the traditional sense. And they don't think public broadcasting needs improvement by Karl Rove's commissars.

Joe Conason is the Prospect's investigative editor.

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