WASHINGTON — In an occasionally tense Senate subcommittee hearing on the Corp. for Public Broadcasting’s 2006 budget, CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson faced tough questions about controversial moves he has recently made. He also eventually agreed to debate political bias in pubcasting with nemesis Bill Moyers.
Following testimony from several witnesses about CPB’s federal funding — including one who called for completely eliminating it — Tomlinson defended his charges that pubcasting’s public affairs programming has a liberal bias. He also tried to justify having hired an outside consultant without CPB board approval to monitor “NOW With Bill Moyers” for bias two years ago and having hired lobbyists to counter possible legislation that would have affected the composition of the CPB board. The CPB inspector general is investigating whether either of these measures violated any laws.
Subcommittee Republicans Ted Stevens (Alaska) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) sympathized with Tomlinson’s assertion of liberal bias, but Specter pointedly took issue with Tomlinson’s spending $10,000 in taxpayer money to hire lobbyists to influence Congress. “This raises serious questions about propriety of expenditures,” Specter told him.
Tomlinson had tried to head off some questions in his prepared opening statement. “I did not initiate the controversy over balance,” Tomlinson wrote. “So allow me to review the actions that I have taken …”
In 2003, he became convinced that “NOW” had become “a symbol of our ignoring our legal mandate to require balance.” While praising Moyers’ work as “eloquent,” Tomlinson said it was nonetheless “liberal advocacy journalism.” Officials at PBS, which produces “NOW,” disagreed, saying the show was indeed balanced. For this reason, Tomlinson wrote, he hired an outside consultant to monitor the show for bias.
“I had never known CPB board members to be involved in approving contracts with consultants … so I did not run this issue by the board. At no time did I make any effort to keep the contract secret from my fellow board members.”
Tomlinson later advocated for and helped create a public affairs program featuring conservative editors of the Wall Street Journal to “balance” the Moyers show.
But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) disputed Tomlinson’s repeated attempts to characterize “NOW” as liberal advocacy journalism. Citing a recent poll of 1,000 adults, Durbin said that 80% gave PBS a favorable rating for programming. PBS prexy Pat Mitchell, another hearing witness, mentioned a recently CPB-commissioned poll conducted by two firms — one liberal, the other conservative — which showed a plurality believed PBS programming was unbiased and more trustworthy than commercial network news.
Durbin also sharply questioned the qualifications of the outside monitor Tomlinson hired. Tomlinson stood by the report, his decision to commission it and his belief that the Moyers show “tilted clearly to the left.” Durbin then noted that Moyers, in a recent speech, had challenged Tomlinson to a public debate about liberal bias of “NOW” during Moyers’ tenure as host. “Would you debate him?”
“Yes,” Tomlinson said, later adding he thought it “might be fun.”
“I think Bill Moyers is biased, but I respect him for it,” Stevens chimed in. “I also applaud (Tomlinson) for recognizing it and counterbalancing it. But I’m more interested in the funding issues here.”
A House appropriations subcommittee cut CPB’s operating budget for 2006 from $400 million to $300 million; it also zeroed out about $90 million for special infrastructure upgrades and changes. The full committee later restored the $100 million, but not the special funding. Stevens, long a pubcasting supporter, said all cut funding should be restored and then cautioned his colleagues who’ve thought otherwise. “Members of Congress ought to calm down,” he said.
Tomlinson argued for restoring the special funding, as did Mitchell of PBS and CPB’s new president Patricia Harrison — whose recent appointment further angered critics who’ve been claiming that Tomlinson is trying to politicize pubcasting.
However, David Boaz, exec VP of the libertarian Cato Institute, said taxpayer funding of pubcasting should be eliminated. Besides expressing concern over the $400 billion federal deficit and a belief that pubcasters could find money elsewhere, Boaz said problems of bias in pubcasting will always exist when government is supplying money.