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US Public Broadcasting Chairman Defends Actions on Alleged Bias in Programming

Kenneth Tomlinson
The chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money from the federal government to non-commercial radio and television stations in the United States, has defended actions he says were necessary to ensure political balance in programming. Kenneth Tomlinson faced tough questions Monday at a Senate hearing examining the issue.

Mr. Tomlinson has been the focus of controversy because of steps he took as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to ensure balance regarding at least one program he said had become an advocacy platform for the political left.

Under his chairmanship since 2003, a number of programs were monitored for content by outside consultants, with a particular focus on one in particular, the Public Broadcasting Service's Now which was hosted by respected journalist Bill Moyers, who is a political liberal.

Amid increasing media and other scrutiny in recent months, Mr. Tomlinson defended this and other actions as reasonable, and within the law requiring public broadcasting to adequately reflect all political views.

Appearing before a congressional committee for the first time since the controversy began, Mr. Tomlinson strongly denied he is trying to politicize public broadcasting, saying he is merely advocating for what he calls common sense political balance. "It seems to me we should be able to agree that we don't want bias, and if we do in the interests of provoking debate, if we have some bias on public television, let's balance it out in the course of the evening," he said.

But critics, including some Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate who have called for his resignation, believe Mr. Tomlinson's actions reflect an agenda by political conservatives to place a permanent stamp on public broadcast programming.

On Monday, the toughest questions for Mr. Tomlinson came from Senator Richard Durbin, who believes charges of politicization are well-founded. "If it reaches the point where the average viewer, who now thinks so highly of public broadcasting, by radio or television, begins to believe that it has now been taken over by people with the a political agenda, who want to spare this administration or any administration [from] criticism, who want to make certain that those who are the most effective advocates for one point of view are silenced or diminished, it is going to really tear at the heart of what is good about public broadcasting," he said.

Although Mr. Tomlinson is a political conservative, the board he chairs is bipartisan, and he describes himself as a strong supporter of public broadcasting, adding that other programs are balanced.

"I don't see that today we have a balance problem. We have a 30 minute show, Now, and a 30 minute show [by] The Wall Street Journal. That is balance. Let the people decide. Balance is common sense."

But Senator Durbin cited surveys showing a high approval rating among Americans for public broadcasting. "The people... have already decided. They thought that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was presenting balance, and they gave it a high approval rating. You have perceived a problem which the American people obviously don't perceive," he said.

Mr. Tomlinson's critics have also pointed to the recent election of Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairperson of the Republican National Committee who also served the Bush administration in a public diplomacy position, to be president of the CPB as a another sign of what some call a conservative assault on public broadcasting.

However, responding to a question from Senator Durbin in Monday's hearing, she denied bringing any political bias to her position. "I am committed to protecting the non-partisan nature of public broadcasting."

Appearing on the same panel, John Lawson, who heads the Association for Public Television Stations, called for greater transparency in the way the board operates.

Some conservative critics alleging liberal political bias also argue for reducing government funding for non-commercial radio and television programming, or eliminating it altogether. They say public stations can survive on private and corporate donations which now account for all but 15-percent of operating costs.

Pat Mitchell, president of the Public Broadcasting Service, says that would be a serious mistake, and a blow to what Congress originally intended when it created public broadcasting. "Two years ago we looked at our editorial standards and said, they need to be updated, we need to be very clear with our producers what we expect from them in terms of fairness and objectivity, accuracy and transparency. So we clarified it," she said. "...we work very hard to ensure that there is not [political bias], and when there is an opinion or a point of view, we are very clear that that is what the viewer is hearing. It is someone's point of view, someone's commentary."

The House of Representatives last month voted against a proposal to cut 100 million dollars from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the 2006 fiscal year.

Monday's hearing was part of Senate preparations to consider the same funding legislation affecting the public broadcasting budget.