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No Fairness Doctrine for PBS

How Taxpayer-Funded Broadcasting is "Surging" Left Under Democrats

Introduction: 'Activists' Inappropriate for PBS, If They're Conservative

The establishment of a national, taxpayer-funded public broadcasting system was codified by Congress in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Deep in the authorizing language was an expression of concern that the emerging system should strive for "objectivity and balance in all programming of a controversial nature." The act created a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to be the primary funder and overseer, and the agency that’s asked to insure the public broadcasting bureaucracy lives up to that statutory language on the air. In actual practice, the Corporation’s board of directors and staff have almost never tried to insure objectivity or balance. Instead, the CPB usually makes statements in an oppositional, anti-populist lingo of creating a "heat shield," protecting the elitist manufacturers of PBS content from the scrutiny of Congress or the people it represents.          

The only CPB board chairman who has ever attempted to balance the scales of PBS content was Kenneth Tomlinson, who was widely condemned by liberal media outlets  and TV writers for organizing two right-leaning half-hour shows (Tucker Carlson Unfiltered and The Journal Editorial Report, a roundtable show with the Wall Street Journal editorial page staff) intended for the Friday night PBS schedule. They premiered in 2004 and were removed from the PBS air in 2005.

The liberal media and turf-conscious liberal communications activists like Common Cause and Free Press went even more aggressively after Tomlinson when they discovered he had hired conservative analyst Fred Mann to conduct a behind-the-scenes content analysis of PBS and NPR programs. Ironically, Tomlinson was subjected to an Inspector General’s probe and reams of bad press for attempting to do secretly what the CPB was originally ordered by Congress to perform.

The partisan nature of PBS came to a head again this year, when Frank Gaffney’s documentary Islam vs. Islamists: Voices From the Muslim Center was stripped out of the national broadcast of a series of films called "America at a Crossroads." Gaffney and his team sought to tell the story of "courageous anti-Islamist Muslims" in the West resisting radical, totalitarian Islam and how they are "being ostracized, bankrupted, intimidated and, in some cases, threatened with death."

The "Crossroads" series was originally announced by the CPB in early 2004 (during Tomlinson’s era) with an eye on airing the shows on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Inside the public broadcasting system, entrenched liberals denounced the series for its attempt to balance out the usual liberal suspects at PBS with new (less liberal) filmmakers. Senior executives equated journalism with liberalism, and the idea of fairness and balance with questionable reporting standards.  (See box.)

But once Tomlinson retired from the CPB board, the permanent liberal bureaucracy kicked into gear. The series was shipped to PBS D.C. superstation WETA. They promptly expressed horror that anyone would allow Gaffney anywhere near a PBS production because of his "day job" with his conservative advocacy group, the Center for Security Policy. They wanted Gaffney fired as an executive producer. When that didn’t happen, they censored the film, refusing to air it. It was later handed over to Oregon Public Broadcasting, for scatter-shot airings on late nights and weekends, a much lower-profile airing than what the other "Crossroads" films received. In a unique arrangement, segments from the Gaffney team’s interviews aired on the Fox News Channel on June 21, 2007 (a Saturday night). The original film that was edited for PBS aired on FNC on Saturday, October 20.

Gaffney explained the PBS resistance to the Weekly Standard: "[W]e started hearing that PBS was telling CPB that they would never air a film that I was associated with....We began hearing that there was an argument being made by PBS that if I were associated with the film in a senior role – they would allow me to be an adviser but I couldn’t be, as I am, a co-executive producer – because of my day job" with the Center for Security Policy, then the program could not run. "There are guidelines that PBS adheres to, evidently selectively shall we say, that prohibit people who have association with advocacy organizations from being involved in content decisions on their airwaves."

This is a clear double standard. Exhibit A is Bill Moyers, a long-time omnipresence on the PBS airwaves. Even as he constantly produces PBS programming, he’s held an activist "day job" as well, as president of the leftist Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, a very ideological philanthropy that funds a long list of environmental groups, not to mention a long list of leftist magazines and leftist media-watchdog groups. No one inside PBS has ever denied Moyers a program over that arrangement.            

But there are many other exhibits. NPR’s current FBI correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, has a new book out – co-authored by Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The title is In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror, and it was touted for providing a "a look at the dangerous erosion of the Bill of Rights in the age of terror" (which coincides with the age of Bush). Despite many liberal newspapers pursuing investigations of partisanship by Tomlinson, a search of the Nexis news-data retrieval system’s newspaper database finds no other mention of the conflict of interest inherent in the ACLU leader-NPR reporter book arrangement.

The notion that "activist" backgrounds and "day jobs" are discouraged inside PBS or NPR is certainly not true when it comes to liberal activism.  Bill Moyers can run a very political foundation. Tavis Smiley can boast of how he’s created "Brand Smiley" and fans admire how he can "build a franchise as an activist" out of his public-broadcasting shows, which includes an annual "State of the Black Union" conference and a best-selling book called The Covenant with Black America. Federal dollars granted to CPB by the Congress often end up subsidizing ideological filmmakers and PBS stars and their leftist agendas.