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Republicans consolidate power on CPB Board

Originally published in Current, Oct. 3, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

Ken Tomlinson, the beleaguered outgoing CPB Board chairman, began the board’s Sept. 26 [2005] meeting with a plea for bipartisanship, saying members from opposing parties can work together “without losing a bit of the fervor” of their political affiliations.

Halpern talks with reporters after her electionThat fervor was on display two hours later when the board’s Republican majority replaced its bipartisan leadership with two Republicans in a party-line vote.

As expected, the board elected Cheryl Halpern, an attorney, real estate developer and longtime GOP donor, as its new chair. Gay Hart Gaines, another major Republican donor and fundraiser, was elected to succeed Democrat Frank Cruz as vice chair.

Halpern and Gaines, an interior decorator by training, were both chosen over Louisiana Public Broadcasting President Beth Courtney, the board’s lone independent member.
In remarks nominating Courtney, Democratic board member Ernest Wilson looked directly at Tomlinson while citing the “gross failures of communication” and “misguided policy initiatives” of the previous year and said the board needed a leader who would “act in a consultative and bipartisan fashion.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about bipartisanship and we should act on it,” Wilson said. The majority rejected Courtney for both chair and vice chair in 5-3 votes. There are five Republicans, two Democrats and one independent on the board. Asked who voted for whom, Tomlinson quipped, “Do the math.”

Halpern, a past chair of CPB’s audit and finance committee, said after her election that she hoped to “forge broad-based financial support for public broadcasting—not just on Capitol Hill, but in our state capitals and in our major cities.”

“Local support for public broadcasting remains strong and we must build from thegrassroots level up,” she said.

She also stressed the need for objective and balanced programming and repeatedly cited CPB’s two-person ombudsman office as a way for pubcasters to remain accountable to the public.

Though she endorses the ombudsmen, Halpern has indicated she’d prefer more direct means of assuring political balance on public TV and radio. During her Senate confirmation hearing in 2003, Halpern agreed with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that Now with Bill Moyers had been imbalanced in the past. She also mentioned that friends had complained that NPR’s Mideast coverage had been biased against Israel.

She told Lott and his Commerce Committee colleagues that CPB should be able to take corrective action when producers create imbalanced programs.

“Going back to my (Broadcasting Board of Governors) days, we were able to remove physically somebody who had engaged in editorialization of the news,” she said at the hearing. Halpern served on the BBG, the government’s international broadcasting oversight board, from 1995 to 2002. Tomlinson remains chair of that board.

Halpern said last week that she would not intervene in programming and would refer all complaints about balance to CPB’s ombudsmen.

Long a major GOP donor and fundraiser, Halpern, with her husband, Fred, donated $227,940 to candidates in 2004, almost all to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics [year's biggest donors]. Gaines, also a donor and party activist, is former chair of GOPAC, the “Republican Party’s pre-eminent education and training center,” according to the organization’s website. The group funded the party’s Newt Gingrich-led rise to power in 1994.

“There’s a lot of hue and cry over nothing,” Gaines told the Daily News in Palm Beach, Fla., where she lives. “The Democrats and other liberal groups try to make it look like CPB is run by a bunch of right-wingers that will interfere with the news. We can’t and we don’t.”

NPR and PBS expressed hope that Halpern would help the system move beyond the controversy that has surrounded CPB in recent months.

“We’ve watched an organization that has supported public broadcasting for four decades . . . become an instrument of ideology and agenda,” said NPR spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. “Our hope is that the new leadership . . . restores the vital firewall and rights the course of CPB.”

“We look forward to working with her as we continue to chart the course for public service media in the 21st century and expect that the new chairman will honor and respect PBS’s independent, nonpartisan mandate,” said PBS President Pat Mitchell.

Less optimistic were progressive activists on hand at the meeting to criticize CPB for lacking transparency and openness.

“Ms. Halpern is likely to continue the board’s campaign to force public broadcasting to produce programming more acceptable to conservatives,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Her election does a disservice to those who care about the quality of PBS, NPR and other public media outlets.”

In a move toward openness, CPB put an audio recording of the board meeting on its website at

Wilson and Courtney were also disappointed that Republican colleagues blocked their effort to send a cooperative signal in the wake of criticism of perceived partisanship at CPB.

“A slate from one party goes against the very spirit of bipartisanship,” Wilson said after the meeting. “It wouldn’t have taken much grace under pressure to reach out in a collegial way.”

The results of the investigation into Tomlinson’s controversial actions, requested by Democrats in Congress, won’t be available until late October or early November, CPB Inspector General Ken Konz said.

Tomlinson defended his moves in a speech at a Media Institute luncheon Sept. 22 (excerpt, page 16). “How can anyone be against my efforts to require political balance in public broadcasting?” he said. “After all, it’s the law.”

CPB Board officers serve one-year terms and can be re-elected only once. Tomlinson stepped down after two terms as chair, but his appointment to the board doesn’t end until next year. Halpern’s and Gaines’ board appointments end in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

In other developments:

Report from the Gulf Coast: Before the contentious vote, the board heard from Gulf Coast pubcasters Courtney; Randy Feldman, president of New Orleans’ WYES; Marie Antoon, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting; David Spizale of KRVS-FM in Lafayette, La.; and Allan Pizzato from Alabama PTV about their personal experiences and restoration efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the region.

Feldman showed photos of WYES facilities after the floods receded, with a muddy high-water line well above desk level. The stations’ program archives were ruined, he said. The only surviving tapes of some productions may be the ones on the top shelf of his destroyed office.

Board member Katherine Anderson, a native of Gulfport, Miss., said the destruction had broken her heart. She praised Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s efforts to alert listeners to evacuation routes and aid resources.

Radio grant formula changes: The board also approved changes in guidelines for radio Community Service Grants (Current, May 2, 2005). New rules expand eligibility for the grants, simplify the system and shift $4.25 million to fund new community service incentives for stations. CPB will test the new requirements in the coming months and announce the final standards in July, said Vinnie Curren, senior v.p. for radio.

Web page posted Oct. 6, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Wilson peers over his eyeglasses at Tomlinson in foreground

Wilson looked at Tomlinson while objecting to “gross failures of communication” and “misguided policy initiatives.” (Photo: Current.)


In her 2003 confirmation hearing, Halpern bemoaned CPB's inability to do much about political imbalance on PBS.


The new CPB chair in her first speech: "I hope to forge broad-based financial support for public broadcasting – not just on Capitol Hill, but in our state capitals, and in our major cities."

Cheryl Halpern and her husband Fred were the country's 79th most generous donors to political campaigns in 2004, giving nearly all their donations to Republicans.

It's time to dump CPB and create a funding system independent of politics, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) suggests. The liberal media watchdog quotes James Ledbetter: "Like a dog that has learned to flinch at the mere pantomime of its master’s lashing, public broadcasters know how to avoid topics and methods of criticism that might bring down the hand of rebuke.”

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