Bias in public broadcasting?
Today's announcement that Patricia Harrison, a onetime cochair of the Republican National Committee, has been named president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is likely to signal more controversy and heartburn for public broadcasters. A former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, Harrison was reportedly the favored candidate of corporation Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, which troubled many in public broadcasting because of her past RNC role.
Tomlinson himself is facing allegations that he's imposing Republican ideology on programming and is now under investigation by the corporation's inspector general for funding a secret study of the public TV program Now to gauge whether former host Bill Moyers exhibited liberal bias. Last week, congressional Democrats called for Tomlinson to resign, distributing "WANTED" posters featuring the muppet Elmo and reading "Red Fur May Indicate Communist Leanings."
The announcement of Harrison's hiring comes at a time when the CPB, which distributes federal funds to public radio and television stations, is threatened by the possibility of its sharpest reductions ever from Congress. Today, the House of Representatives is scheduled to take up a measure that would cut federal aid to public broadcasters by nearly half. But the current tempest over funding and editorial direction of the Public Broadcasting Servicepublic TVand National Public Radio has obscured the very issue that observers say made the broadcasters vulnerable in the first place: the perception that PBS and NPR reflect a liberal bias. "Public broadcasters want to avoid a content debate," says Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center. "They want the debate to be about Big Bird." Solid evidence of a liberal bias in public broadcasting, however, has been difficult to come by, and some critics are shifting the debate to whether federally subsidized broadcasting is itself a liberal idea whose time has come and gone.
The recent addition of the TV programs Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and Journal Editorial Report, which features the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, to PBS's Friday-night lineup were widely seen as Tomlinson's attempts to get more conservative voices on air. But some critics say they're not enough. "You balanced out Friday night, but what about Saturday through Thursday?" asks Graham. But critics are hard-pressed to point to content analysis that suggests liberal bias. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, conducted a study in the late '80s that found PBS documentaries tended to exhibit liberal views, portraying environmental protection as an absolute good and criticizing the United States' foreign allies much more than its enemies. But his study also found that women and minorities were significantly underrepresented in programming, drawing fire from liberals.
In addition to Lichter's work, the other study widely cited by conservative critics, featured in a 2004 issue of the public-broadcasting newspaper Current, found that Bill Moyers's Now was less "a forum for contending views [than] a platform for Moyers's critique of policy and politics." In 19 segments about the Iraq war, the study found, only four featured someone voicing support. But the study also asserted that the Journal Editorial Report has "followed Moyers's model of reporting its version of 'the truth behind the news' " from a conservative vantage point.