The Washington-based Public Broadcasting Service took to the defensive high ground this week in an escalating conflict over the ideological slant of public-TV programs.
Claiming that PBS is not the "tool of any political faction," the board of directors of the national public-TV network announced plans to launch a comprehensive internal review of its program policies and practices.
The Thursday announcement was made two weeks after more than 50 members of Congress called for a review of PBS programs and after months of mounting conservative criticism that public-TV has a liberal bias.
The PBS review is to include evaluating the standards used to select programs aired on the nation's more than 300 public-TV stations, PBS said.
"This step is necessary at this time because there are some who seek to discredit the programming on PBS," said the service's president, Bruce L. Christensen, in announcing the review.
"Nothing," he said, "is more important to public television than its program and editorial independence."
The PBS board of directors decided to name a special committee of its members to conduct the review and present a report in December. The report will include recommendations for any policy changes that the committee believes may be warranted, PBS said.
Two weeks ago, 53 members of Congress, led by Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.), called for a review of public-TV programs, which are funded in considerable part with federal money.
In July, conservatives on the board of directors of the Corp. for Public Broadcasting--the principal conduit of federal funds to public broadcasting--came close to instituting their own "content analysis" of PBS programs. That move was blocked, however, by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), whose House committee oversees public broadcasting.
William Kobin, president of KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles, said he had "absolutely no doubts" that the review will find that PBS shows conform with generally accepted standards of journalistic fairness.
Kobin, who is also a member of the PBS board's executive committee, said the review was necessary in part to show that the service is "not cavalier about the criticism" it has received.
Most recently, that criticism has come principally from the right. Conservative groups have spent at least six months widely criticizing public TV for an allegedly liberal program bias.
One especially vocal critic of PBS programming, Reed Irvine of the Washington-based Accuracy in Media conservative media-watchdog organization, welcomed the PBS review but gave it little chance of altering public-TV programming.
The internal review, said Irvine, "is like asking John Dean to investigate Watergate."
Conservative criticism has grown especially heated in the last month, when PBS began broadcasting a controversial new series positing that some problems of Africa result from American and other Western nations' interference in the continent's affairs.
Last month, the National Endowment for the Humanities removed its name from the list of underwriters for the nine-part series, "The Africans," produced by WETA-TV in Washington and the British Broadcasting Corp.
Endowment officials called the show an "anti-Western diatribe" and said it violated conditions of its $600,000 grant.
Since that time, various conservative groups, ranging from Citizens for Reagan to the National Black Republican Council, have asked PBS to give them equal time to present a panel discussion rebutting "The Africans."
On Thursday, the Washington-based National Conservative Foundation said it planned to buy $100,000 worth of television advertising time to urge viewers to watch the controversial series and judge its fairness for themselves.