Monday, May 9, 2005

A New York Times editorial writer phoned to follow up on that paper’s recent Page One article that charged I was “aggressively pressing public television” to reflect the political balance and diversity required by law.

At one point she expressed concern the “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” — a public television program launched in part to balance the advocacy journalism of Bill Moyers’ “NOW” — would soon dominate airwaves in major markets. I explained there was no chance of that.

In fact, while better than two-thirds of public television stations carry “NOW” prime-time, less than one-fifth provide such prominence to the Wall Street Journal program. Indeed, many major markets relegate the Journal program to slots like 4 a.m.

Why haven’t you done something about that? she asked.

For the same reason I did not go public more than a year ago with material from a consultant’s study that documented the liberal bias of “NOW,” where the best chance of hearing a Republican was if he attacked the Bush administration.

Public broadcasting — a television network that is actually a coalition of largely locally autonomous stations — is a delicate institution, I explained. In our effort to achieve political balance, I did not want to damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy.

Now I realize most sophisticated political observers had the same reaction as Don Imus to the headline “Chairman exerts pressure on PBS, alleging bias … cites a need for balance”: That’s front-page news?

And I realize there are those like Mr. Imus who would ask why we needed a consultant to document what is such a widely accepted fact of life.

Incredibly, when I brought the problem with “NOW” to the attention of PBS President Pat Mitchell, she declared (with a straight face) the program was balanced.

By the time I had irrefutable documentation of the program’s bias, cooler heads among PBS leaders prevailed, Miss Mitchell herself had been forced to add political balance to the PBS lineup, and I was satisfied the system was moving (if ever so slowly) toward recognizing its political image problem.

Now it would be unfair not to also recognize there is within public television a tradition of balance and objective journalism unmatched in broadcast history. The journalistic traditions of the “McNeil-Lehrer Report” — now the “Jim Lehrer NewsHour” — are unassailable.

Why then did I (inside the private sanctums of public broadcasting) take issue with “NOW”? It was certainly not to force the program off the air. I have never advocated removing any program from public television, nor do I want to jeopardize the traditional financial support provided by American liberals to this institution.

To me and many other supporters of public broadcasting the image of the left-wing bias of “NOW” — unchallenged by a balancing point of view on public broadcasting’s Friday evening lineup — was unhealthy. Indeed, it jeopardized essential support for public TV.

This was brought home to me in November 2003 by a phone call from an old friend complaining about Mr. Moyers’ bias and the lack of balance on the Friday evening lineup. He explained the foundation he heads made a six-figure contribution to his local public television station for digital conversion. But he declared there would be no more contributions until something was done about the network’s bias.

He also explained it was my responsibility as CPB chairman to preserve public support for public broadcasting by doing something about the bias. On reflection, I decided he was right.

So, the rest is history. Bill Moyers, on his own, moved on to write a biography of his mentor Lyndon Johnson, but “NOW,” under David Brancaccio, continues in the Moyers liberal advocacy tradition.

And that’s fine by me — and I hope liberal fans of the show back their support of the show with generous contributions to public television.

In a small but growing number of major markets, however, the 30-minute “NOW” broadcast is followed by the 30-minute “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” — and the American people can decide which viewpoint they choose to follow.

The trauma to public broadcasting sensitivities that I so intensely sought to avoid has no doubt hurt the image of public broadcasting in the short run. I hope in the long run these events help an institution I still believe merits public support.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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