Is ‘political stuff’ rising in CPB Board?
That’s the fear as White House appoints devoted partisans
Two newly appointed CPB Board members are big Republican campaign donors whose alliances or statements call into question their suitability for the role, Common Cause has warned.
Together, CPB directors Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern and their families have given more than $816,000 to Republican causes over the past 14 years, the political reform lobby said in a little-noticed news release before Christmas [release].
But the big problem for Common Cause was not the appointees' generosity to campaigns. The group notes that Gaines was a key fundraiser for Newt Gingrich a decade ago when the House speaker was campaigning to defund CPB, where Gaines is now a board member. In November, Halpern alarmed Common Cause and some pubcasters by suggesting that CPB should be given authority to impose accountability and penalties for broadcasts it deems unbalanced.
Though the CPB Board has not stirred many political waves in recent years, the new board members may have the opportunity if Congress takes up the long-overdue reauthorization of the corporation in hearings this year. CPB's president and board have criticized PBS for strong liberal commentaries on Now with Bill Moyers, and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain reportedly agrees [article].
Advocates for public broadcasting, meanwhile, are preparing to defend its independence. "Public broadcasting is on our agenda this year," said Common Cause spokesperson Mary Boyle.
CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, who said he had been delegated to speak for the board, said pubcasters need not fear dire consequences and that CPB intends to redress any imbalances by backing programs with contrasting views. "Our first concern is not exclusion [of views]," he said. "It is inclusion. We want to make sure when Americans think of public broadcasting that they think of a system that presents political views across the spectrum." Gaines and Halpern were not available for comment, CPB said.
The two board members are superb, public-spirited fundraisers who have backed many philanthropic efforts over the years and can give pubcasting the benefit of their experience, Tomlinson said.
Gaines, who chaired Gingrich's GOPAC fundraising vehicle, has such stature in Republican circles that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford recently came to her hometown of Palm Beach, Fla., on her request. The Palm Beach Daily News reported: "When Gay Gaines asks you to do something," the governor remarked, "you say, 'Yes, ma'am.'" She and her husband have donated more than $491,000 to Republican causes since 1989, according to federal figures compiled by Common Cause. Halpern, former chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and her husband gave more than $324,000 to Republicans since 1989.
The Bush administration gave both of them recess appointments while Congress was out of session, so they joined the board without waiting for a Senate confirmation hearing. Halpern got her recess appointment in 2002 and her confirmation in December 2003. Gaines got a recess appointment to the board Dec. 26 along with another Florida Republican, Claudia Puig [mini-profiles of CPB Board]. The recess appointments expire this year, but Gaines and Puig are nominated for permanent appointments.
Under the Public Broadcasting Act, the White House can put appointees of one political party in no more than five of the nine CPB Board seats. The White House reliably goes to the max, swinging the board's majority to its own party as the six-year board terms expire.
The board now has five Republicans, two Democrats, a professional pubcaster of no stated party and a vacancy.
Friends of Bill
When Democrats hold the White House, they also put generous and well-connected
friends on the CPB Board.
A board member of the mid-'90s and chairman in 1996-97, Alan Sagner, hails from the same New Jersey town as Halpern and gives even more to Democrats than she gives to Republicans. His campaign donations have exceeded $399,000 since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org).
For every former Reagan press secretary (Sheila Tate) or presidential colleague
(radio producer Harry O'Connor), there's a Clinton administration cabinet
wife (journalist Heidi Schulman) or presidential friend (the late Diane Blair).
Pubcasters who get more nervous about Republicans typically hark back to past troubles with President Nixon, who tried to wipe public affairs off the PBS schedule, and Speaker Gingrich.
Common Cause, however, is concerned about more than just party affiliations,
said Celia Wexler, director of research.
"We have a history of saying that in an ideal world presidents would appoint on the basis of qualifications [and] not on the basis of contributions or cronyism," said Wexler. "But we're political realists. Presidents often give these kinds of appointments to their supporters. The concern is whether more is going on than that."
The Center for Responsive Politics, whose political donations database provided figures for Common Cause, takes a similar stand.
"The fact that they are donors is not a black mark against them," said Sheila Krumholz, CRP research director. The real question, she said, is whether they got their positions because of their donations instead of their qualifications for the job.
Some CPB Board appointees bring both political connections and useful experience.
Recently retired member Ritajean Butterworth, for instance, was a former congressional
aide but also a longtime board member of Seattle stations. She "could
speak about the ramification of things at the local level," but with
more credibility than a paid staffer, "who would be seen as having an
agenda," said a former CPB executive who asked to remain anonymous.
Knowing major politicians, as big donors do, can also help CPB when it needs the attention of politicians or protection from them.
"Our goal is to widen the spectrum of people supporting public broadcasting," Tomlinson told Current, "and I think it's very important to have Republicans, Democrats, moderates, across the spectrum."
"It's awfully important for public broadcasting to have the support of significant people, including people in the political process," he said.
"Political connections at that level give the board and staff access to certain necessary offices in Washington that the staff would not otherwise have," said Edward J. Pfister, a former CPB president who is now dean of the University of Miami School of Communication.
Most board members shared a passion for public broadcasting and worked together so well during Pfister's term in the 1980s that he did not pay attention to their party affiliations, he told Current. Even in trying times, they usually put the interests of public broadcasting ahead of politics, he said.
On fewer occasions, however, board members indulged in partisanship, Pfister said. Some Democrats, he said, were so intent on helping independent producers and ethnic minorities that they would "throw the baby out with the bathwater," subordinating the field's overall interests to those issues. Republicans had other fixations.
"There were times when you would have to pull them back from the brink," he recalled. "Sometimes in those discussions you could see the political stuff beginning to happen in front of your eyes. That infuriated me."
Pfister gave up his job on one such occasion in 1985. Chairman Sonia Landau, former head of Women for Reagan/Bush, led a board revolt against a CPB plan to send a program-sales expedition to Soviet broadcasters. She said she was upset that "an institution that operates on federal money is dealing with the Soviet government," which President Reagan pictured as the Evil Empire three years earlier. Richard Brookhiser, a board member who was an editor with William F. Buckley's National Review, warned that the Russians would want to send back propaganda. Fed up with the partisan position-taking, Pfister exited [article].
There have been other occasions, such as when the Nixon White House schemed to use the CPB Board to put an end to PBS's remarkably strong (and often liberal) public affairs programming [Nixon memos].
Then in the 1990s, CPB Chairman Sheila Tate campaigned doggedly to remove a Democrat from the board, spreading allegations that the Democrat had made romantic overtures toward a CPB vice president [article]. The "political stuff" seemed to be arising again.
Products of a "terrible process"
CPB's Board members--good, bad and indifferent--come out of a politically charged appointment process descended from the patronage machines of the past.
"It's a terrible process," said Paul Light, v.p. and director of governmental studies of the Brookings Institution, "but neither party wants to fix it--too many favors at stake."
"The 99 senators who think they should be president don't want to give up any prerogatives they might have," Light said in a note to Current, "and the sitting president has too many pledges to keep."
Light was speaking about hundreds of presidential appointments throughout Washington, not just the nine CPB Board seats.
When Brookings' Presidential Appointment Initiative looked at President Clinton's first 320 appointees and President Bush's first 320, more than half of them had made contributions to their corresponding presidential campaigns, and nearly a third of the donors had given $5,000 or more.
"The process by which those appointees are invited to serve is almost as bad as it can be," Light wrote in a Brookings paper. It was long, embarrassing, cruel to those caught in partisan firefights and discouraging to many competent business and civic leaders who might do a good job, he said.
The appointees themselves say the system doesn't work. Brookings interviewed 435 senior-level appointees of the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations and 580 civic and corporate leaders who might be candidates for those jobs.
"Only 11 percent of past appointees and 14 percent of potential appointees said that current appointees represent the best and brightest America has to offer," Light wrote. Three-quarters thought some of the appointees lacked the necessary skills.
Ordinarily citizen watchdog groups and even most public broadcasters pay little attention to CPB's presidential appointees. But Halpern's testimony piqued the interest of Common Cause, said Wexler.
Based in part on Halpern's testimony, the association is alarmed that presidential appointees are targeting a PBS program--Moyers'--and fear they will try to restrict public broadcasters' independence, said Wexler.
This independence is important when so many media are in the hands of corporations driven by profitability, she said. A Common Cause survey of the group's members indicates that their main news source is public broadcasting, she added.
"If you're going to have reporting that is free to go anywhere the facts take it, you really need a [CPB] that understands that need," Wexler said.
"I don't think it's too much to ask," she said, "that you appoint people of good will without a specific agenda."
Web page revised Jan. 20, 2004
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