Recasting public b’casting

As the right and left square off, CPB's role needs rethinking

When kids fight over a toy, wise parents take it away. Maybe that’s what needs to happen in the latest spat over public broadcasting.

Conservatives, led by Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Ken Tomlinson, complain of liberal bias. Liberals say Tomlinson and his fellow Republicans on the CPB board are cramming a GOP agenda onto public broadcasting. Josh Silver, exec director of the lefty media group Free Press, has even called for Tomlinson to resign.

The government funds CPB, a nonprofit entity that in turn underwrites public broadcasting, including PBS and NPR. CPB was created specifically as a sort of demilitarized zone between politics and pubcasting, but fights about political bias date back at least to the administration of Richard Nixon.

So it should come as no surprise: As long as the CPB, whose board members are political appointees, continues to hand out governmental money, those fights will go on. Unless …

Since CPB now supplies public broadcasting with only about 15% of its budget, maybe it’s time for the government to take its money — and CPB — away, and end the bickering.

“A lot of people even on the progressive side have been saying that,” says Cara Mertes, exec director of PBS’s doc series “P.O.V.” “But it’s not time to get rid of CPB.” Producers would be hard-pressed, she says, to come up with that 15%, or roughly $400 million.

“Getting rid of CPB isn’t the solution,” concurs Silver, “but it does get at the core of the problem, which is that the system is structurally flawed. It relies on Congress for money and Congress is the most prone to political winds.”

He and Mertes contend that changing CPB’s funding mechanism — and ending political appointment of CPB’s board — would help.

But Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) isn’t so sure.

Eliminating CPB is “getting close,” says Foley, a supporter of pubcasters in his state. “The fact that CPB is trying to swing conservative now is just as upsetting as when it was swinging liberal. Is it a business or a political think-tank? I’m afraid it’s the latter.”