Statement of Chellie Pingree, CEO and President, Common Cause On public broadcasting funding before Senate Labor, HHS

Statement of Chellie Pingree, President, Common Cause

On public broadcasting funding before Senate Labor, HHS panel

One would expect that the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, testifying before a Senate subcommittee considering the CPB’s 2006 budget, would focus on the reasons for supporting its full budget allocation, rather than assailing the “bias” of a journalist who no longer moderates the news program with which Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson seems obsessed.

NOW with Bill Moyers no longer appears on any PBS outlet, although a shorter version of NOW, with a different host, remains on the schedule. But when it was on the air, Mr. Moyers’ work included guests from a diverse political spectrum. Conservative religious leader Ralph Reed, Richard Viguerie, the direct mail genius responsible for the growth of the conservative movement, conservative columnist Cal Thomas, and Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, all appeared on this program.

Contrary to Mr. Tomlinson’s assertions, many of these guests debated Mr. Moyers on the issues, offering viewers the diversity of viewpoints that Mr. Tomlinson claims to desire.

At a time when the country is debating the role of journalists and journalism, and when the need for fact-based substantive reporting is at an all-time high, public broadcasting fulfills a crucial role in providing citizens with the information they need to participate in our democracy. Commercial broadcasters increasingly are relying on news operations that focus on entertainment and opinion unsupported by facts. NOW did include commentary, but the program also provided solid reporting on issues – such as the trend of increasing media concentration, or the consequences of our national trade policy on real people – that few other news outlets offered. Mr. Tomlinson, far from criticizing and investigating NOW, should have celebrated it. The program is part of the legacy of a public broadcasting that, without commercial constraints, has spoken truth to power, nettling both Republican and Democratic administrations along the way.

Nor did the viewers of public broadcasting seem to find Mr. Moyers wanting in balance. According to the CPB’s own reports, NOW did not draw a firestorm of protest from its audience. On the contrary, in 2003, the CPB received only 24 complaints about NOW, out of more than 1,100 viewer comments about programs.

If Mr. Tomlinson sincerely wanted a serious evaluation of NOW and the National Public Radio shows hosted by Diane Rehm and Tavis Smiley that he paid a consultant to monitor, he would not have hired a shadowy political operative with questionable journalism credentials for the job. Mr. Tomlinson says he did not release the consultant’s report because he did not want to inflame the controversy. In truth, isn’t it far more likely that Mr. Tomlinson did not release this report because it was a shoddy piece of work that any high school student could have turned in?

We agree with Mr. Tomlinson on one point: That it is time to “lay aside partisanship, seek popular consensus for what public broadcasting should be doing, and go forward to meet the challenges that lie ahead.” But Mr. Tomlinson’s actions must conform to his words. To date, they have not.

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