Leave NPR alone

June 06, 2005|By Anthony S. Brandon

THE CONTROVERSY over recent actions by the chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting might not be so disturbing if the organization were not engaging in the exact kind of political interference it was designed to prevent.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who has quietly headed CPB for 18 months, recently emerged with an agenda that includes hiring monitors to find examples of liberal bias on public affairs shows, appointing ombudsmen to carry out further monitoring and making thinly veiled threats to pull funding for shows that don't meet his fairness criteria.

Mr. Tomlinson's first salvo was to cut Bill Moyers' weekly show, NOW, from one hour to 30 minutes after Mr. Moyers' departure, then fund two programs with conservative viewpoints: one hosted by Paul Gigot, editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the other by former CNN commentator Tucker Carlson. Now Mr. Tomlinson is considering launching an investigation into whether National Public Radio's Middle East coverage is pro-Arab.

To view these moves in their proper context, it's important to understand the origins of the CPB.

Congress established the CPB in 1967 as part of a new public broadcasting infrastructure. Unfortunately, in creating the system, Congress failed to set up an endowed trust to pay for programming, so monies are allocated annually by a panel of commissioners appointed by the U.S. president. The CPB was charged with shielding public broadcasting from political pressure and with ensuring that programming is objective and balanced.

Unlike the time-honored philosophy of openness and collaboration practiced by CPB boards for decades through Republican and Democratic administrations, the current board appears to prefer to work behind a wall of secrecy, shrouding its motives and agenda.

Mr. Tomlinson's reported efforts to terminate funding of startup national news programming appear to be an attempt to prevent the development and success of original content aimed at one of public broadcasting's core missions: to provide in-depth, contextual programming that promotes diverse voices and serves the underserved.

It is important to note that a recent survey of the American public commissioned by the CPB, undertaken jointly by a Republican and a Democratic polling firm, found that "the majority of the U.S. adult population does not believe that the news and information programming on public broadcasting is biased." Specifically, 78 percent of the general respondents indicated that NPR did not have a liberal bias.

In another study, the NPR listening audience identified itself as one-third conservative, one-third independent and one-third liberal. And congressional support for public broadcasting is and always has been bipartisan in nature.

Now The New York Times reports, "An association of news ombudsmen has rejected an attempt by two ombudsmen from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to join their organization as full-fledged members, questioning their independence."

Ironically, the CPB's scrutiny of public radio has a minimal effect on NPR, as CPB funding to NPR is minimal. Rather, it's the individual stations across America that will suffer if the CPB withholds grants to them as a way of protesting perceived NPR biases.

Locally, WYPR-FM has always attempted to fairly present all sides of an issue. The Marc Steiner Show and the 22 other programs produced by WYPR-FM are most certainly inclusive. While 7 percent of WYPR-FM's annual budget comes from the CPB, if the CPB pursues this errant course and attempts to assert influence upon our content, WYPR-FM would immediately reject CPB funds.

Government tampering with independent journalism is a very bad idea reserved for tyrannical governments. Attempting to inject balance into public broadcasting is an imprudent, and quite possibly dangerous, idea.

Anthony S. Brandon is president and general manager of WYPR-FM, a public radio station serving Maryland.

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