Thursday, November 17, 2005

CPB

The Journal usually gives us a fairly wide menu to select from when making our choice of what to write about. But this morning they have only a single editorial, giving their side of the story with respect to a report released yesterday (pdf) by the Inspector General of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Journal is involved in the story because of the recently cancelled "Journal Editorial Report," a joint project of PBS and the Journal editorial board.

The Journal writes at such great length in order to make the point that "PBS came to us, not vice versa." It's not completely clear why they think this point is so crucial; the report certainly never suggests otherwise. But for anyone who is in doubt, there is no evidence that the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal orchestrated a conspiracy to broadcast a television show on PBS. We're glad that we could help the Journal get the word out about that.

Back on Planet Earth, the Inspector General's report was concerned with the violations of procedures established to keep the Board of Directors at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in control of major policy shifts. In most, though not all, cases it was former Chairman of the Board Kenneth Tomlinson who committed the violations, and Tomlinson resigned from the board shortly before the publication of the report. Tomlinson, a Republican operative appointed as Chairman of the Board in 2003, began early in his tenure moving aggressively to combat what he saw as liberal bias in public broadcasting and to pressure public radio and tv stations to better reflect his own conservative views.

To this end, he hired two conservative ombudsmen, commissioned a fantastically sloppy study of the relative proportion of liberal and conservative guests on four public broadcasting programs, and put strong pressure on PBS to either hire a conservative to balance Bill Moyers on the NOW program that he hosts, or to create an alternative conservative version. PBS (PBS, like NPR, is a consortium of local public broadcasters that produces programming for public broadcasting stations; the stations themselves are under the umbrella of the CPB, though with signficant autonomy) eventually produced two such conservative alternatives. One of the two was the "Journal Editorial Report." Tomlinson had lobbied strongly for this program and had exchanged emails with Paul Gigot of the Journal strategizing over how to get the program produced.

In none of this, it seems, did Tomlinson consult with the CPB Board of Directors as required. The Journal is contemptuous of the CPB's decentralized structure, writing that "as an organization, the PBS system resembles late Ching Dynasty China: The Emperor at headquarters may give an order, but the warlords who program individual stations might or might not follow it." But the reasons for procedures which involve the entire board rather than simply a rogue chairman/emperor barking orders are not hard to understand.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was designed to be as insulated as possible from political pressure. Its Board of Directors reflects that concern in its efforts to ensure balanced representation. No more than five of the nine members are allowed to be of any one political party, and two of the nine seats are reserved for representatives of local stations. The point, plainly, is to prevent any single presidential appointee to the board from imposing his own ideological views (or those of his sponsors) on public broadcasting as a whole. This is of course what Tomlinson tried to do, and the report quite rightly recognizes that, whatever the merits of the programming changes he wanted to make, the procedures in place for board involvement are in place for a reason and ought to be followed.

The Journal may find this inconvenient, and they are clearly resentful of the local programmers who failed to pick up their show, although in an uncharacteristically passive-aggressive way ("There is more to say about those programmers and their motivations than we have space for today."). But there are good reasons why public broadcasting is not subject to the whim of a single presidential appointee, even if he does share the Journal's ideological biases.

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