Statement by Common Cause President Chellie Pingree on New Yorker PBS Story

It is deeply troubling to learn that public broadcasting has been subject to intense ideological pressure, as reported this week by The New Yorker. Public broadcasting should not find itself in the crosshairs of a partisan firing squad. At a time when Americans are finding it more and more difficult to get past the clutter and partisanship on commercial TV and radio to find truthful sources of information about their government, this ideological pressure may gag one of the few sources of independent, substantive news and commentary that Americans can count on.

The fact that members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides federal funds to public radio and TV, should play politics with its program content should disturb us all, whatever our political views may be.

The visionaries who created public broadcasting set up the CPB as the nonprofit corporation providing federal funds to public radio and TV. CPB’s primary mission has always been to serve as a “heat shield” between government and public broadcasting, protecting programming from government interference.

But instead of serving as a “heat shield,” CPB now is the agent of ideological interference. And public broadcasting’s news and public affairs programs in particular will be harmed if conservative members of the CPB have their way.

The New Yorker’s expose, “Big Bird Flies Right,” documents several disturbing trends:

The decision by CPB to fund two programs — one hosted by Tucker Carlson, who speaks for conservatives on CNN’s “Crossfire,” and one moderated by Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, at the same time that “NOW with Bill Moyers,” which receives no CPB funds, is cut from an hour to 30 minutes;

What appears to be a Bush Administration litmus test for choosing members of the CPB. When CPB board candidate Chon Noriega, a UCLA media professor and co-founder of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, was interviewed by the White House, he was asked whether the CPB should intervene in programming “deemed politically biased.” When Professor Noriega said intervention should be used in only extraordinary circumstances, the appointment process ground to a halt, and the White House has asked Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) to put forward another candidate.

The observation by journalist Moyers, who told The New Yorker author Ken Auletta: “This is the first time in my 32 years of public broadcasting that CPB has ordered up programs for ideological instead of journalistic reasons.”

There is a problem with the CPB. Whether it is a Democratic or Republican President who appoints them, CPB board members tend to be big political donors who often come with specific ideological agendas. This seems particularly true of the current board.

For example, President George W. Bush’s most recent CPB appointees, Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern, and their families, have given more than $800,000 to the Republican Party and candidates since 1995. Both these appointees have backgrounds that raise questions about their suitability to serve on the CPB board. During her confirmation hearing last fall, Halpern indicated that she would welcome giving CPB members the authority to intervene in program content when they felt a program was biased.

Gaines chaired Newt Gingrich’s (R-GA) political committee GOPAC. Gingrich as House Speaker proposed cutting all federal assistance to public TV.

Board chairman Kenneth Tomlinson has given $7,700 to Republicans since 1995, and has been active in Republican politics. A friend of Karl Rove, he is quoted in The New Yorker as saying that “It is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in public television as people on the left have,” and he objected to Moyers’ including commentary in his programs.

We cannot let partisans drive an ideological stake in the heart of public broadcasting. At a time when media consolidation makes it more and more difficult for Americans to hear diverse points of view and to be exposed to substantive, challenging journalism, we must save public broadcasting from these attempts to meddle with its editorial independence. Today I’m calling on our 250,000 Common Cause members and supporters and all those who support public broadcasting to phone, fax or e-mail members of the CPB board. Tell them we won’t tolerate playing politics with public broadcasting.

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