CPB Moves Spark Tensions in Public Broadcasting

The chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which supports PBS, NPR member stations and some programs — says there's need for more on-air balance between liberal and conservative views. The appointment of two CPB ombudsmen and content analysis of a PBS news program have caused concerns about political interference among public broadcasters.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Tensions simmering in the world of public broadcasting are bursting into open view. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting subsidizes PBS and NPR member stations and some of their programs. The corporation's chairman has led a push for what he says is much-needed balance. Kenneth Tomlinson says some PBS news programs tilted to the left and were not paired with equally conservative shows. And, he says, NPR's coverage of the Middle East is often unfair to the Israeli government. As NPR's David Folkenflik explains, some critics inside NPR and PBS say that may amount to political interference.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Tomlinson says he's an activist who's careful not to intrude, but some public broadcasting officials say he is intruding. Bill Reed is a former PBS official who's president of Kansas City Public Television. He says he doesn't understand Tomlinson's crusade.

Mr. BILL REED (Kansas City Public Television): Study after study has been done about the journalistic standards in public television, and basically the American people feel that overall, we're fair in what we do, and so why are we going on this witch hunt?

FOLKENFLIK: But Tomlinson says he's responding to the concerns that other people express to him, people like Congressman Brad Sherman, a California Democrat. Sherman says NPR's coverage of the Middle East is improving, but he says it's only slightly less biased against Israel than it used to be.

Representative BRAD SHERMAN (Democrat, California): So many of us have heard the line that it is NPR, National Palestinian Radio.

FOLKENFLIK: Sherman has also pressed NPR's CEO, Kevin Klose, to give him more information about how NPR judges the fairness of its reporting.

Rep. SHERMAN: If any corporation you were investigating was as closed and conclusionary, as self-righteous and as non-communicative as NPR has been on this issue, you'd go nuts.

FOLKENFLIK: A study commissioned by the CPB in 2003 and examined by NPR found that 5 percent of people surveyed thought NPR was biased toward Palestinians. Six percent believed NPR was biased toward Israelis. CPB Chairman Tomlinson says he admires NPR and think it's an indispensable alternative to commercial radio. But Tomlinson says he generally agrees with Sherman.

Mr. KENNETH TOMLINSON (Chairman, CPB): I think problems with NPR's Middle East coverage in the past has been, to a major extent, documented.

FOLKENFLIK: Tomlinson says NPR and PBS must do better to address the concerns of the public and especially lawmakers like Sherman. He says that's why he hired two new ombudsmen at CPB. The two are veteran journalists who will take complaints and separately judge the fairness of news coverage by public broadcasters. But NPR's Klose says Tomlinson had a very fixed idea about how he wanted the arrangement to work when they first talked about it several months ago.

KEVIN KLOSE (CEO, NPR): He made it clear in the course of his essentially one-sided remarks that his interest was in having an ombudsman activity that would, in effect, speak for two points of view; one a conservative point of view and one a, quote, "liberal" point of view.

FOLKENFLIK: And Klose says that's a prescription for ideological argument, not analysis.

KLOSE: The possibility of a single person reaching a reasonable decision for what is common understanding on a single story or a program is ruled out by such an approach.

FOLKENFLIK: Klose says NPR's worked hard to be fair and transparent for listeners. Five years ago, NPR appointed its own ombudsman to field complaints, the first in American broadcasting. NPR posts free transcripts of all its stories on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its Web site, npr.org. In addition, the news organization issues a quarterly assessment of its Middle East coverage that's available publicly. And Klose rejects what he says are Tomlinson's unsupportable criticisms.

CLOSE: Mr. Tomlinson has cited no facts, because I don't think he has facts that actually support his view--i.e., that there is lack of balance in our coverage of the Middle East.

FOLKENFLIK: Tomlinson considered making other moves. He says he explored the possibility of hiring a Washington think tank to create a way to measure the fairness of Middle Eastern coverage on NPR. The CPB is also considering shifting some funds for the development of radio news programs to music shows. Both possible moves more news to NPR. Tomlinson says any such initiatives will be discussed with officials at NPR and PBS before they're put in place.

But a culture gap became evident as long as two years ago. At one closed board meeting, according to two former CPB officials, Tomlinson suggested bringing in Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume to talk to public broadcasting officials about how to create balanced news programs. Fox News won top ratings with its sharp-edged reporting and criticism for its right-of-center talk shows. Tomlinson says public broadcasting needs to be open to other ways of thinking.

Mr. TOMLINSON: There is no danger of National Public Radio developing the culture of Fox News. It simply is not going to happen. But it is important to have voices in journalism coming from different perspectives.

FOLKENFLIK: Tomlinson felt the PBS program "NOW with Bill Moyers" was not balanced. `Moyers is an unfettered liberal and populist whose Friday-night shows, reporting and commentary reflected his often fiery tone.' But Moyers says many conservatives have appeared on his show for extended and even-handed interviews. Moyers no longer appears on the show he created. It's been cut to 30 minutes. At Tomlinson's urging, PBS started a show centered around The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial board to balance "NOW" on Fridays. At a recent speech in St. Louis, Moyers took direct aim at Tomlinson, and he says he got into hot water because he broke the rules of Washington journalism.

Mr. BILL MOYERS (PBS Host): Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.

FOLKENFLIK: Other figures in public broadcasting are also critical. NPR's Klose says Tomlinson has failed to explain what he's doing and why he's doing it.

KLOSE: If I had any criticism at all, in addition to his inability to show any kind of a cooperative embrace of all the diversities inside public radio, he's not been very eloquent or actually even very clear or straightforward about what it is he intends.

FOLKENFLIK: PBS President Pat Mitchell is set to give a major address in Washington. She's expected to defend PBS and to express concerns about the CPB board's motivations in trying to assert more control over public broadcasting. After complaints by two congressional Democrats, CPB's inspector general is investigating whether Tomlinson's activities broke the law by engaging in illegal political interference in public broadcasting. Tomlinson says he's simply acting to ensure that its news programs are balanced. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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