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.
The CPB itself conducted polls in 2003, using one Democratic and one Republican pollster, and found that just 1 in 5 Americans perceives a liberal bias in public broadcasting, fewer than the number who detect a liberal bias in the three big television networks or CNN. The study did find a clear split in perceptions among Democrats and Republicans, with 1 in 3 Republicans and 1 in 10 Democrats claiming a bias. Still, public broadcasting has been dogged by bias allegations ever since its founding 35 years ago. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon stage-managed the dismantling of PBS's public affairs division because its two main anchors, Robert McNeil and Sander Vanocur, were both liberals, according to Jack Mitchell, author of the recent book Listener Supported: History and Culture of Public Radio. When the unit was restored under President Gerald Ford, Mitchell says PBS intentionally selected Jim Lehrer as Vanocur's replacement because he was seen as a neutral representative of Middle America. Public broadcasting's budget was cut by around 25 percent under President Ronald Reagan, but an effort to defund the CPB in the 1990s by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich failed, provoking a backlash that actually drove up federal funding.
Some public broadcasting defenders say its very mission as a supplement to commercial broadcasting has exposed it to accusations of bias. "The whole point behind NPR was to be inclusive, to reflect the diversity that is America, and to let all views be heard," says Bill Siemering, a founding member of CPB who wrote NPR's first mission statement. "Public broadcasting reflects diversity of the country, and for some, diversity is a loaded word." Indeed, when PBS taped an episode of the cartoon show Postcards From Buster earlier this year that featured same-sex couples in Vermont who are raising kids, the U.S. education secretary insinuated that Congress could cut PBS funding, prompting it to halt its distribution. "Some of the children's programming has tried to push the envelope a little bit, and what that has done is breach trust with parents," says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
But others say that the depiction of gay parents is not itself evidence of political bias. "Making [gay parents] visible is not politically charged," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "If they said that [gay parents] should be allowed to marry, then it's a political statement."
Beyond taking issue with public broadcasting's programming, critics say government-subsidized radio is itself a liberal notion. "The whole idea of public broadcasting, which is that the marketplace will not produce everything that's required of a good society, is a liberal idea," says Mitchell, who is generally supportive of public broadcasting. With the explosive growth of cable television channels, though, critics say public TV, in particular, is no longer necessary, noting that the average public TV station depends on federal funds for only about 15 percent of its budget. "It is a safer zone for children than a lot of what's on TV," says Perkins. "[But] it does not need to be subsidized with taxpayer money." Perkins and other conservatives say shows like Sesame Street are popular enough to go commercial. But federal funding to individual stations goes largely into paying dues to PBS and NPR, meaning, says Thompson, that the broadcasters "have never been in as vulnerable a place as [they are] now."