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Whose agenda is it anyway?

Balance has long been an issue in public broadcasting, but the debate flares when some see a conservative push as a shove.

March 24, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Perennially cash-strapped public television producers and filmmakers would ordinarily be thrilled that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently unveiled a long-awaited initiative to fund $20 million worth of documentaries on post-Sept. 11 terrorist attack themes. Instead, a recent forum in New York where the organization's executives explained more precisely what kinds of programs they are seeking for "America at a Crossroads" turned into a shouting and name-calling session.

One producer drew sustained applause from many of the 275 or so attendees for complaining that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was "asking me to do the bidding of the Pentagon." An employee of the National Black Programming Consortium noted "this whole thing stinks," as he criticized a focus on the "Anglo-American world order" by an expert panel of white men who were brought in to suggest documentary topics. That led Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who had been invited to discuss American foreign policy, to snap back sarcastically: "We're evilly trying to destroy public debate.... We got our instructions this morning."

When producer Rory O'Connor called the presentation "tone deaf" and "offensive," because "I come here to find five white men when you say you are seeking balance and diversity," panelist Max Boot, also a council fellow, sniped that the audience had "a narrow, one-dimensional definition of diversity." He was shouted down.

The fight, which one veteran producer later called "fairly sophomoric name-calling," brought into the open tensions that have been brewing inside the noncommercial public television world for the last year, starting with the February 2003 appointment of independent filmmaker Michael Pack to oversee the TV programming budget of the corporation that administers federal funding for public broadcasting.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funnels most of the money directly to local radio and TV stations, which then pay for shows from programmers such as the Public Broadcasting Service. But the corporation also controls its own influential programming money. The appointment of Pack -- whose own films have explored such topics as "The Fall of Newt Gingrich," "The Rodney King Incident: Race and Justice in America" and most recently the debate over the role of faith-based organizations in providing social services -- was viewed by many as part of a move to swing public television to a more conservative stance, in the face of loud criticism from some in Congress that public television has been pushing a liberal agenda.

An old debate

Political balance in public broadcasting is an old debate, reflecting the broader political and cultural wars that rage regularly, but it flared up with the return of Republican control of the White House, at the same time that PBS gave a prominent new weekly public affairs program to Bill Moyers. His Friday night "Now" series has been a lightning rod for critics who complain that Moyers has a liberal bias on issues.

Starting June 18, PBS will attempt to balance the equation by adding a Friday series hosted by CNN's bow-tied, generally conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, whose father, Richard Carlson, is a former Corporation for Public Broadcasting president. Moyers, meanwhile, has announced he will retire from the show after the November election. Still, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is expected to undergo Senate Commerce Committee reauthorization hearings in May, with the issue of objectivity and balance front and center.

Objectivity and balance came up at the November Senate confirmation hearing for two new Corporation for Public Broadcasting board members. One, Republican appointee Cheryl Halpern, raised eyebrows when she talked about the contradiction in the Public Broadcasting Act, which requires shows to be objective and balanced but prohibits the corporation from interfering with the content of programming other than deciding whether to fund it. Some took her remarks to mean that she thought the corporation needed to have more power to reign in producers who don't provide balance in their shows.

The ideological battles raging across the country help explain the current tensions, said Corporation for Public Broadcasting President Robert Coonrod. He also acknowledged that Pack's appointment has caused some unease because he has a "worldview that's a little different from some in public television." Pack, he said, "is an independent producer who is by his own admission a Republican and a conservative. I don't ask producers what their politics are, but by and large I believe people who produce for public television tend to be more liberal than not."

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