A Left-Wing Bias in Public Broadcasting?
Jude Wanniski
June 22, 2005


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From: Jude Wanniski
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Over the last 25 years, I doubt I have watched the commercial network news shows -- with Rather, Jennings, Browkaw -- more than a dozen times. I literally gave up on them way back then when I realized every hour I spent watching their news reports gave me a negative return on investment. That is, I knew less after watching than before I tuned in, given the amount of misinformation presented in news processed for the lowest common denominator. If commercial news is to survive, it has to have advertising, and in order to get advertising it has to fit the tastes of the masses. If it were not for Public Broadcasting, which has sustained my need for objective, balanced news reporting, I would simply have given up on TV news and stuck to the newspapers. As a longtime media critic on top of being a major consumer of news, I can absolutely say that Public Broadcasting is perfectly balanced left and right, both with reporting and with commentary. It has had to be in order to maintain the support of the public and its representatives in government.

There is now a controversy because President Bush awhile back appointed Ken Tomlinson, a former editor of Reader's Digest and, in the first Bush administration the top executive at Voice of America. I've known Tomlinson for decades and can assure you he is a swell fellow who undoubtedly believes it has been his job to stamp out a left-wing bias at PBS. And he sees left-wing bias because he has spent his career in private and public journalism as a right-winger. At the Voice of America during the Cold War, he was perfect for the job, which required a propagandist, never expected to give "the other side" their say.

Ken's an "ideologue," which requires that he hew strictly to the views of the conservative intellectuals who are in control of that wing of the Republican Party. At the moment, the neo-conservatives are in control, so when Tomlinson hired a fellow to watch Public Television to "rate" the face time various political people got, it was a fellow ideologue who listed Sen. Chuck Hagel [R NB] as a "liberal," simply because Hagel has grumbled now and then about the war in Iraq.

A dozen or so Democratic Senators have complained to the administration about Tomlinson's heavy-handed bias in trying to stamp out bias, but the real aim of the "wingers," as they call themselves, is to close down public television altogether. Always has been. They would prefer the country to get all its information and opinion from FoxNews, Rupert Murdoch's "War Channel," which makes little attempt at balance in its commercial news presentations -- especially when it comes to its promotion of the war in Iraq. Patriotism sells, especially when there is a war going on!!

So it was interesting to watch the Jim Lehrer News Hour on public television last night covering this fracas. I had to laugh because the report was so biased. George Neumayr, a true right-wing wacko represented one side, and Bill Reed, a vanilla moderate represented the other side, with nobody at all on the left. You may think I'm being unfair to Neumayr, executive editor of the American Spectator magazine, but read the transcript first. The Spectator, as you might imagine, is under the thumb of the neo-cons, as is the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Did you ever wonder how the Journal editpage rates a weekly PBS show in prime time, paid for out of taxpayer funds? Why not ask Ken Tomlinson?

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Is there a liberal bias in public broadcasting?

JEFFREY BROWN (moderator): Late today, the board meeting of the CPB ended without choosing a new president. And for the record, the NewsHour receives almost half its funding from PBS, which in turn receives some of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

We now explore some of these issues now with Bill Reed, president of KCPT, a public television station in Kansas City, and George Neumayr, executive editor of the American Spectator Magazine.

Welcome to both of you. Mr. Neumayr, starting with you, you've been writing on some of these issues. Do you see a liberal bias in public broadcasting?

GEORGE NEUMAYR: I do. I see a pervasive bias. PBS looks like a liberal monopoly to me, and Bill Moyers is Exhibit A of that very strident left-wing bias. You can see it in also that recently-canceled show Postcards from Buster, which is a cartoon depicting a rabbit that goes to Vermont to stay with a lesbian couple in order to learn about politically correct values. So I think the problem of bias is quite deep, and I applaud Ken Tomlinson for making an attempt to correct it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you refer to it as a "liberal monopoly" you mean you see it as a kind of pervasive matter?

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Well, I think it's been that case, the case for decades. You know, liberals have dominated PBS from the time it was started in 1967.

I mean, it was created by Bill Moyers, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and it's really just a liberal Great Society project, and the slant and the tilt of the programming for decades has reflected that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you speak about a bias, do you mean a particular agenda being pushed, or more of a general attitude?

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Both. You see, with Bill Moyers, you see -- you know, he uses his show as a platform from which to attack conservatives and Republicans. He's been using it to harangue George Bush over the war, but also, yes, a tone, a liberal tone can be seen throughout the programming on PBS.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Reed, do you see a liberal bias?

BILL REED: I think this is really nonsense. You know, the CPB commissioned two nationwide surveys about this bias issue and -- by separate firms, incidentally -- and they both came out with a majority of the American people saying they did not think there was liberal bias in PBS programs.

As a matter of fact, the last survey had 79 percent of the respondents said there was not liberal bias in public broadcasting.

I really find it interesting that repeatedly, we raise Bill Moyers "Now" as the reason that people are attacking us for being too liberal. You know, for over 30 years, William F. Buckley was on public television, and I carried him proudly in the stations that I've managed in my career. He's a fine journalist, and so is Bill Moyers.

But I don't recall hearing any charges of bias when we had William F. Buckley, who was the conservative spokesman in this nation during that time. I just find these charges interesting, especially, I understand that Mr. Tomlinson's poll that he had commissioned secretly, without the board's knowledge, came back stating that there was not bias. But, yet, these charges continue to be raised.

Is Kenneth Tomlinson going after PBS?

JEFFREY BROWN: So Mr. Reed, what do you believe is causing Mr. Tomlinson to raise these questions?

BILL REED: You know, I don't know. I don't know. I can only speculate, but, you know, he -- the Public Broadcasting Act stipulates that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one of its primary functions is to provide a heat shield to keep politics from meddling in public broadcasting.

And Mr. Tomlinson has gone beyond anything that I've ever seen in the past. He's not only not providing the heat shield; he's turning up the heat. And this is really a disturbing situation. He's politicizing public broadcasting. And I'll tell you why it's so disturbing --

GEORGE NEUMAYR: I would disagree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let him finish. And then I'll come --

BILL REED: Can I finish, please? Here in Kansas City, Kansas City Public Television would not be here without the support of citizens from all walks of life and all political parties, and likewise on the national level. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting could not have increased its funding over the years without bipartisan support in Congress.

And by -- what Tomlinson is doing at CPB is really pitting one political party against another, and that should not be anywhere near public broadcasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead, Mr. Neumayr.

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Mr. Tomlinson has not politicized PBS. Bill Moyers politicized PBS. The liberals have been politicizing PBS from 1967. This is a ridiculous smear against Ken Tomlinson for simply doing his job.

It is his job; it is his duty as the chairman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure philosophical balance in programming that is financed by all Americans. This programming is not simply -- it's not supposed to be the personal playhouse of the left wing in this country. It's not supposed to simply be a perk for coastal elites.

And Mr. Tomlinson is reflecting the views and values of the majority who voted George Bush into office, and I think it's entirely reasonable for him to correct long-standing liberal prejudices and biases that have gone unchecked and unchallenged for way too long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Reed, doesn't Mr. Tomlinson have the right in his role to speak out, if he sees this?

BILL REED: Sure, but here he's speaking out after all the polls done by his own organization show overwhelmingly that the American public does not think there's bias in public television programming. And I have to ask, you know, during all those years that William F. Buckley was on the air, and matter of fact, Pat Buchanan is on my air every week, and so is Tony Blakely from the Washington Times every week stating their views, does that make us now suddenly a conservative-oriented public broadcasting? This is absurd to single out one program --

GEORGE NEUMAYR: That's tokenism.

BILL REED: -- this kind of influence -

GEORGE NEUMAYR: That's tokenism, and you'd be lucky to have caught Bill Buckley at midnight on most stations across this country. Just to have --

BILL REED: That is not true.

GEORGE NEUMAYR: To have one conservative on a liberally-dominated network is not balanced.

BILL REED: The only thing that you can talk about liberally dominated is Bill Moyers. I mean --

GEORGE NEUMAYR: I gave you an example of Postcards from Buster, which shows how deep the bias is at PBS.

BILL REED: Postcards from Buster, there's one issue was with the lesbian parents in one program out of all the programs. And, you know, I'm not sure that that's a liberal versus conservative issue anyway.

Running a balance schedule at PBS

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Reed, do you see the federal funding question is what you've raised, Mr. Neumayr -- does the federal funding aspect of this provide or call for some special responsibility for all of us who are at PBS, Mr. Reed?

BILL REED: Sure. It does. And as I've stated earlier, the public does not feel there's any bias. It doesn't mean that you have to have total balance within every program.

And incidentally, Bill Moyers on "Now" had many of the leading Republicans on his show on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, I saw one of the shows when Cal Thomas was on it, and at the end of the show when Bill Moyers thanked him for being on there, Cal Thomas said to Bill Moyers, "Keep up the great work, Bill. You're the best."

And so, you know, what we're talking about is do we have to have internal balance in every show, or should we have internal balance over the schedule? And that's what we shoot for here at KCPT. We want balance over the schedule. We want all the voices on public broadcasting.

JEFFREY BROWN: This balance over the schedule is part of what Pat Mitchell, the PBS president, was talking about as well.

GEORGE NEUMAYR: I dispute that -- you know, one semi-conservative, or very tame and token conservative show does not make -- does not constitute balance.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're referring to the Wall Street journal?

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Right, I mean, that's a very -- I mean if that's PBS' conservative representative, it's a quite tame one. And, I mean, for PBS to say it's balanced because it's running that show is like the New York Times saying that it's balanced because it's running David Brooks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Broader question --

BILL REED: I don't think -- go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sorry, I was going to ask the broader question, because some people have raised whether there is a role for public broadcasting at all today.

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Well, I think the question should be raised. Why are the American people financing with their tax dollars programming that offends them? Why are they picking up the tab for Bill Moyers? I've never heard a good answer to that question.


BILL REED: You know, Bill Moyers is -- Bill Moyers is not even on the air anymore, and you keep saying, you know, Pick up the tab for this liberal broadcasting network," when study after study has shown otherwise, and you can't put anything forward except your opinion about --

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Well, study after study shows the American people aren't watching PBS.

BILL REED: No, that's not true. At any given night, all the 500 channels you talk about on cable if you want to measure any one of those channels against public broadcasting, you'll see their audiences are minuscule.

But let me answer the question about why we need public broadcasting. I think if you ask parents of young children that question they'd give you a lot of reasons. We still have the best non-commercial, nonviolent, educational children's programming anywhere on television.

And secondly, in our prime-time schedules and our public affairs -- including Now -- Frontline may be the best documentary series on television ever, American Experience, this program - the NewsHour - Nature, Nova, all these programs, you cannot find them anywhere else on the commercial dial. But let me tell you one other thing that makes us distinctive from all the other program services.

They do not have a presence in Kansas City. We are a local community asset. We provide programs and services to the community -- for example, we serve 200,000 K-12 students in Kansas and Missouri. We have a collaborative effort with nine area colleges and universities that result in 50,000 people getting distance education every year.

We're currently doing a demonstration with data-casting with our digital transmitter, with homeland security. And you don't have enough time on this program for me to tell you all the other local programs and services we have here. Those are big reasons why this country still needs public broadcasting.

Federal funding issues

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Neumayr, let me ask you a brief question about the funding question. As we said, Congress is now looking at this, at the funding issue. Do you see the debate we're having here about potential bias playing into the funding question?

GEORGE NEUMAYR: Sure. I think the -- all the liberals, PBS -- Pat Mitchell and company -- who've been digging a hole for Mr. Tomlinson are going to fall into that hole because they have renewed a debate about PBS.

They have -- the boomerang they threw at Tomlinson is coming back at them because now people are wondering why is it that we're spending millions of dollars so that liberal advocates, like Bill Moyers, can have platforms from which to attack a president who's popular.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Reed, do you worry that this funding question will get tied up with the bias issue?

BILL REED: Oh, Bill Moyers -- you know, Bill Moyers retired. He keeps bringing up Bill Moyers. And I hope Bill Moyers comes back. I'd love to have him back on our air.

The funding issue is a very serious one. I think if these cuts hold up, it could be the end of public broadcasting, both radio and television. And I'll tell you why: You know, here in Kansas City, a 25 percent cut in our community service grant -- we're a $7 million operation and our community service grant is $900,000 next year -- if we had that cut out of the station here, it would really cut gut this operation, but we could still be able to survive.

But when you get out into the rural parts of the country where the stations have budgets of 1 million, 1.5 million dollars, and the portion of their operating budget is 30 or 40 percent coming from CPB, if you cut that money, those stations are going to start to go off the air.

And what you have is a chain reaction happening in at least in public television, where those stations in the aggregate send a lot of money back to PBS to fund national programming.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mr. Reed -

BILL REED: Certainly. Yeah -

JEFFREY BROWN: I'm sorry, we got to stop it there. We will stay tuned. And thank you, Bill Reed, and George Neumayr, thank you both very much.