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CPB director: to end bias we need more authority

Originally published in Current, Nov. 17, 2003
By Dan Odenwald

CPB should be given greater clout to hold producers responsible for biased and imbalanced news reporting, CPB Board member Cheryl Halpern told the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this month.

"There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability," Halpern said. When that fails, guilty parties need to be penalized, she added.

Halpern, a Republican fundraiser appointed to the CPB Board by President Bush last year, made the pitch for greater CPB authority during her Senate confirmation hearing Nov. 4 [2003]. The board member, given a recess appointment in August 2002, had not had a Senate hearing. Fellow nominee Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, was also vetted by senators during the hearing. Action on the Halpern and Courtney confirmations is pending.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) raised the issue of political imbalance on public TV and radio, taking a shot at PBS's Now and its host, Bill Moyers.

"I certainly think he's the most partisan and nonobjective person I know in media of any kind," Lott said. He lambasted Moyers for his November 2002 election commentary, which bemoaned GOP policies and gains in both houses of Congress. "It's the most blatantly partisan, irresponsible thing I've ever heard in my life, and yet [CPB] has not seemed to be willing to deal with Bill Moyers and that type of programming," Lott said.

"The fact of the matter is, I agree," Halpern responded, who pointed to contradictory directives in the laws that govern CPB and explain the agency's inability to act.

The Public Broadcasting Act calls on CPB to support programming that's objective and balanced, yet prohibits it from interfering with public TV and radio's programming decisions. "There is a conflict here," she said.

Halpern contrasted the oversight abilities of CPB with those of the government's Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), parent of Voice of America and other overseas services, on which she served between 1990 and 2002.
Alumni of those overseas services are prominent at both CPB and NPR. New CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson chairs the BBG as well and directed VOA during the Reagan administration; CPB Board member Ernest J. Wilson III was a U.S. Information Agency official during the Clinton years; CPB President Bob Coonrod was a longtime USIA executive; NPR President Kevin Klose was the BBG's top executive, and his deputy, Ken Stern, also worked there.

"When there were allegations of impropriety [at the BBG] in violation of the journalistic code of ethics," Halpern told the senators, "we were able to aggressively step in, review the transcript of the potential violation and initiate penalties. The CPB cannot in this construct similarly engage or penalize the individual licensees that choose to air programs, nor can we impact the individual programs because we are not the sole funders."

Halpern told the committee she has fielded complaints from her Jewish friends as well, who complain of pro-Palestinian bias on NPR. Halpern served as chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition since 1993 and is now an honorary chairman. "There's so very little that CPB can effectively do to correct the situation," she said.

"Going back to my BBG days, we were able to remove physically somebody who had engaged in editorialization of the news," she added.

"Was that man removed in handcuffs?" quipped Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

"No--it was a she--and she was given a desk job where she was not allowed to editorialize," Halpern answered.

Ideal: Lehrer's balance

CPB does, however, have the ability to aid programs selectively. It contributes nothing to Now, for example, but provided start-up cash for Tucker Carlson's new show, which PBS commissioned to counterbalance Moyers' program (article).

Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Halpern that he'd explore her concerns in a CPB reauthorization hearing next year, though a Senate staffer said he has no immediate plans to tinker with CPB's authorizing language.

Bias is an issue "we hear about a lot on both sides of the spectrum," McCain said. "If Ms. Halpern's views are correct, and CPB has no influence over that, what's the point of having a board of directors?"

Courtney questioned the need for Congress and CPB to get more involved in the programming decisions of public TV, arguing that viewers readily share their complaints about programs they think unfair.

"I guarantee you if there's a program that people are unhappy with, we'll hear about it," she told the committee. "I'm on ground zero responding to all these things."

"Moyers is a public TV celebrity with good reason, but his current effort is not balanced," Tomlinson told Current. "If a significant number of conservatives are saying public TV is not for them, we need to change that — not by taking over programs but by achieving balance."

Tomlinson blames himself for not speaking out earlier against the Moyers show. He purposely stayed quiet to avoid controversy at a time when he thought pubcasters needed to be building support for public TV, he said.
Tomlinson doesn't want to push Moyers out of public TV, but he would like him to be more like Jim Lehrer, host of PBS's NewsHour, which goes to great lengths to balance its stories, he said.

If public TV wants to preserve the Moyers approach, he said, it should offer a similar program from the right. "Let the people hear the different sides and make up their own minds," Tomlinson said.

PBS guidelines, which are derived from the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, guarantee objectivity across the schedule if not within a particular program, said PBS Chief Operating Officer Wayne Godwin. "Bill Moyers is a fine journalist and a proud part of what PBS offers," he said.

Excluding voices such as Moyers' wouldn't serve the public interest, Godwin added. PBS prefers to include voices, such as Carlson's, to expand the debate.

Tomlinson wants to convene meetings within pubcasting to debate objectivity and balance standards. CPB retains authority to call attention to biased reporting, he said. "If you don't want to see balance on public TV, we should take that word out of the law," he said.

Public TV lobbyists think any problems that arise should be handled internally. "Editorial independence for public TV is and always will be our highest priority," said APTS President John Lawson. "But the more these perceptions of imbalance are not addressed voluntarily by PTV, the more pressure there will be for some legislative intrusion into that process."

General managers should have the ultimate say about what goes on the air, Courtney told Current. At most stations, CPB grants represent a fraction of overall funding--not enough to give the corporation wide jurisdiction over program decisions, she said.

The confirmation hearing was clearly a preview of what pubcasters can expect to see in the CPB reauthorization process next year, Lawson said. As in the 1992 renewal of CPB's legislation, senators will want to have a long discussion about objectivity and balance, he predicted.

Web page posted Nov. 17, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

Cheryl Halpern

Pubcasters guilty of imbalance "need to be penalized," Halpern (above) told the Senate panel.


Text of the "objectivity and balance" amendment to CPB's legislation.

Bill Moyers criticizes the thrust of Republican policies, drawing new fire from the right, November 2002.

CPB calls for more attention to balance and fairness, 2003.


Public TV hires Tucker Carlson to host a program intended to counterbalance Moyers.


Bios of CPB Board members and other leaders.