The controversy over whether the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, is trying to cleanse its programs of what he sees as liberal bias has obscured the valuable lesson he has taught all of us journalists: Do not ask for, or accept, government funds — from any administration.
Mr. Tomlinson has clearly shown that “political orthodoxy” is not the ideological monopoly of Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, George Soros or Al Franken. But those communicators do not have the heavy hand of government to police public speech in order to help strengthen their political goals.
As what George Orwell might have called the Big Brother of the public broadcasting system, Mr. Tomlinson paid $14,700 of public funds to Fred Mann, a “researcher,” to monitor present and past public broadcasting shows by Bill Moyers, Tavis Smiley, David Brancaccio, Diane Rehm (of whom Mr. Tomlinson professes to be “a great admirer”), and even the witty conservative Tucker Carlson. (His guests too “proved” to be suspect.) If Mr. Mann oranother”researcher” is to be paid to do an encore, IexpectNationalPublic Radio’s “Morning Edition” a source of many of my news leads, could be included for its illuminating June 20 report of Mr. Mann’s methodology for ferreting out leftists.
NPRreporterDavid Folkenflik noted that Mr. Mann “sorted people who appeared as guests on the shows into three camps: conservative, liberal and neutral.” When Washington Post reporter Robin Wright showed up on “The Diane Rehm Show,” Mr. Mann’s investigative expertise marked her down as a liberal. The proof, according to Mr. Mann: “Ms. Wright’s viewpoint was that U.S. intelligence was geared to fight the Cold War and did not adapt to the new threat of terrorism.” Hello? Worse yet, as Mr. Folkenflik added, Mr. Carlson was a host of interest to Mr. Mann because on his show, there were “more liberal guests than conservatives.” Could it be that Mr. Carlson wanted to make fun of them?
To discover that Mr. Moyers, on his weekly hour, was not an admirer of the Bush administration is like, in the old phrase, “shooting ducks in a barrel.” I was a guest on that show once, citing the damage that certain sections of the Patriot Act and subsequent administration executive orders were doing to the Bill of Rights. But I was also a guest on William Buckley’s “Firing Line” when it was on PBS, a program I wish was back there again. And currently, Wall Street Journal editors and writers can instructively be seen and heard every week on PBS. Moreover, each night, on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” there is intense jousting between liberals and conservatives.
Mr. Tomlinson is being so ham-handed in his mission to protect the Bush administration from dread diversity of ideas that I would think someone at the White House or among the Republican leadership in Congress would be at least embarrassed. After all, the president has said we should pride ourselves that in this constitutional democracy, our government is “transparent.” Furthermore, it is demeaning to such forcefully articulateadministration policy-makersasDonald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and John Negroponte to imply that they need Mr. Tomlinson to buffer them against contrasting views on public broadcasting programs.
Mr. Tomlinson, however, seems to have no limits to his sense of himself as a commander of the president’s Praetorian Guard. He has successfully managed to install Patricia Harrison as the new CEO and president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her credits for this prestigious post as tribune of the free flow of diverse views to the public include her previous services as co-chairwoman of the Republican Party. It is as if Mr. Soros were to become editor-in-chief of the Associated Press.
Long ago, during my unformed youth, I was speaking on a panel as an anti-Communist (having read Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” when I was 15) but wondering about the possibilities of “democratic socialism.” A libertarian on the panel asked me how long I thought a free press would flourish under any kind of socialist government. Like a clap of thunder, I was awakened from my fantasy.
Now, under a Republican administration,”public” broadcasting is being investigated as if we were subject to so statist a government that we must be insulated from insufficient appreciation of this administration’s virtues. This would be farcical if it weren’t actually happening. But I am grateful to Mr. Tomlinson for illuminating the sticky strings that come with government financial support of the press, which must be free to be free.