Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The question of a left-wing tilt in public television is in the news again, this time posed by the man who runs the federal agency that funds public broadcasting.

Veteran journalist Ken Tomlinson, board chairman at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has raised the ire of public television executives by having the temerity to suggest some of the documentary and other news programs aired on PBS are often lopsidedly liberal. He says Bill Moyers’ program “Now” is one of the worst offenders, though Mr. Moyers — the former flack for the Johnson White House — left the show in December. The show now has a new host, as liberal as ever, and Mr. Moyers plans to return with another program in the fall.

Pat Mitchell, president of the Public Broadcasting Service, among others, has sharply criticized Mr. Tomlinson’s accusations of PBS’ liberal bias, denying any suggestion public television is in need of balance. These are people who still insist PBS and National Public Radio are “private” corporations that should answer to no one. But how many “private corporations” receive nearly $400 million a year in direct taxpayer support and have a board of directors appointed by the White House?

One of the steps Mr. Tomlinson (originally appointed to the board by President Bill Clinton) has taken is to appoint an ombudsmen team made up of legendary Reader’s Digest editor Bill Schulz and longtime TV journalist and educator Ken Bode (a former PBS program host). Their assignment: examine public television programming and cite examples where no attempts have been made to present a balanced view of a subject.

Mr. Moyers’ “Now” was a particularly outrageous example of a program that let a journalist attack the Bush administration and other favorite liberal targets, while hosting a rarely interrupted series of liberal rants by guests about “corporate greed,” environmental pollution and a government that does not spend enough on the poor.

“Washington Week in Review,” a weekly talk show that brings together a bunch of liberal journalists to examine the news, is another offender. Its panel’s singular achievement: 35 years without a hint of disagreement on any topic.

Anyone who watched the program regularly during the 2004 election year heard an analytical stream of consciousness about how George W. Bush was doing everything wrong in his campaign, how much trouble he had gotten himself and the country into, and how badly his campaign was going at every turn. When Mr. Bush won, it must have come as a huge surprise to “Washington Week in Review” viewers, who were led to believe Mr. Bush was losing the election.

A recent PBS program on land use and the environment in New Jersey paraded a long line of environmental talking heads who pointed to all kinds of dreadful things happening to that state’s suburban landscape, farms and way of life.

No one had anything good to say about New Jersey’s land use, though it has one of the nation’s strongest economies. The impression the show left was that virtually nothing grows in the state, that people were packed into overcrowded housing developments built on land tracts bulldozed and exploited by evil, rapacious land developers.

This was a show that underscored Mr. Tomlinson’s cry for balance, where someone could have and should have been allowed to present the other side. Obviously, New Jersey is a very popular place to live, with some of the country’s prettiest towns and most bucolic landscapes, not to mention a thriving agricultural sector. But you wouldn’t know it from watching PBS’ tilted presentation.

This is not to suggest PBS does not offer many really great, well-balanced programs, like “Nature” and Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, the Jazz Age and the civil rights movement.

Nevertheless, Mr. Tomlinson is onto something. He told The Washington Post last month that the ideological resistance of veteran PBS people like Miss Mitchell is “symbolic of the tone-deafness” and “intellectual dishonesty” among PBS’ entrenched liberal bureaucracy.

Three cheers, then, for Ken Tomlinson and his get-tough attitude on PBS’ left-wing cabal. It’s time someone called them to account for programming that all too often refuses to tell the other side of the story.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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