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Public Broadcasting Board Snared by Partisan Politics

Democrats oppose a GOP official as head of the body that doles out funds for TV and radio.

June 18, 2005|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Fearing a conservative takeover of the nation's taxpayer-supported radio and TV stations, congressional Democrats on Friday asked the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to delay the selection of a new chief executive who would oversee the system.

In a two-page letter, Rep. Diane E. Watson (D-Los Angeles) and 19 other House Democrats urged Kenneth Y. Tomlinson to delay next week's selection of a new president for CPB, saying the reported front-runner for the job, former Republican National Committee Co-Chair Patricia de Stacy Harrison, should not be under consideration.

"Under no circumstance should the president of the CPB be a former chair of a political party, be it Republican or Democrat," said the lawmakers. "Our public media are not ideological pawns for political parties, and the CPB president must not be a partisan activist."

The CPB is a private nonpartisan body established to distribute federal funds to public television and radio broadcasters. The members of its board of directors are appointed by the president.

The CPB search committee has contacted a number of candidates for the president's post, including Ken Ferree, CPB's interim president, and S. Jenell Trigg, a former broadcasting executive who practices communications law in Washington. But Harrison, now an assistant secretary of State, is viewed as the front-runner for the president's job.

The lawmakers' letter, which also was signed by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), came one day after Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee pushed through a spending bill that would slash funding for public television and radio by almost half. It also comes amid growing tension on the CPB board, which is scheduled to meet here Monday and Tuesday for the first time since early April.

Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of CPB's board of directors, has pushed to bring more conservative programming to PBS, saying he believes the system has a liberal political bias.

Tomlinson himself also is drawing more scrutiny, with recent reports that he and his predecessor gave contracts to two GOP lobbyists last year without notifying the rest of the board.

Some officials within the public broadcasting community on Friday also appealed for a delay in the selection of a new CPB president.

Beth Courtney, a member of the CPB board of directors, said she planned to ask Tomlinson for a complete list of the candidates sought for the president's job so that the board could consider all of them.

"I'm certainly going to ask for a delay so that we can consider a number of issues," said Courtney, adding, "Ken Tomlinson is not in charge of public broadcasting."

Mary G. Bitterman, chairwoman of the PBS board of directors, also has expressed concerns about partisanship at CPB in a letter sent Friday to Tomlinson.

Bitterman wrote: "We are worried that the possible appointment of a former national political party chair to the post of president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will further damage the prospects of public broadcasting."

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