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A feud over Bush's pick

Warren Bell draws criticism as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting appointee.

December 22, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — President Bush quietly appointed television sitcom producer Warren Bell to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting this week, overriding opposition from public broadcasting advocates who fear the outspoken conservative will politicize the post.

Bell's nomination had been stalled since September because of concerns about his qualifications among several members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which must approve nominees to the board of the CPB, the private nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public television and radio stations.

But Bush was able to circumvent the need for Senate approval by naming Bell to the board Wednesday evening as a recess appointee. His term will last about a year, unless a permanent nominee for the seat is confirmed before then.

"There had not been action in the Senate on his nomination," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "The president felt the need to get it done."

Fratto said Bush believes Bell's 17 years of experience in network television gives him the right credentials for the post.

"He has innovative ideas on making public television more competitive with mainstream media and expressed a very strong commitment to improving CPB," he said.

Bell, executive producer of ABC's "According to Jim," said in an interview that he hopes to strengthen public broadcasting during his time on the board.

He added that the nomination process "has not been a lot of fun."

"The whole thing completely blindsided me," Bell said. "I don't think I was remotely aware of what a hot spot public broadcasting is politically."

Indeed, his appointment was condemned Thursday by some members of the Commerce Committee who said that Bell's lack of public broadcasting experience and his partisan writings for the conservative National Review made him an inappropriate choice.

"This appointment by the Bush administration makes it clear that they simply don't care about the integrity or quality of our public broadcasting system," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

As a contributor to the online edition of the National Review, Bell has made no secret of his political views, writing in one piece that he is "thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues."

His comments alarmed some public broadcasting advocates, who worry he would plunge the system back into the kind of rancorous debate that erupted last year when Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, then chairman of the CPB board, sought to promote more conservatives in the system. Tomlinson resigned last fall after an internal investigation concluded his actions broke federal law.

"The CPB has had some very substantial controversy attached to it recently, and I think especially because of that the president should have paid attention to some of the concerns in Congress," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who called the recess appointment "a real serious mistake."

Added Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): "The American people made clear on Nov. 7 they wanted bipartisanship from their government, and President Bush once again chose to ignore the concerns of the Senate instead of choosing a consensus nominee."

But Bell, whose appointment is effective immediately, said he will separate his own politics from his role as a board member.

"I'm a comedy writer," he said. "I'm really not nearly a political person as I've been made out to be. I think once people meet me and speak to me and hear what I'm about, they'll see the concerns that were raised were greatly overblown.

"I'm not an ideologue and I'm certainly not Ken Tomlinson," Bell added. "I'm not on a crusade, except to maybe make PBS a really great network for people to watch."

After working for nearly two decades as a writer and producer for sitcoms such as "Life's Work," "Ellen" and "Coach," Bell said he's interested in helping reinvigorate PBS' lineup.

"I certainly think top-quality scripted programming might have a place on PBS the way it has on BBC," he said.

However, the veteran producer will have to contend with a development system vastly different from that of a commercial network. Local PBS stations -- rather than Hollywood studios -- produce the bulk of programming, and although CPB provides funding for some shows, it has little influence on what airs. PBS distributes a national slate of programs, which each station then independently decides how to schedule.

Bell's appointment was greeted tepidly by public television officials.

"It is our hope that Warren Bell will make positive contributions to CPB's mission of strong support for public broadcasting," said PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan. "However, it is important to remember that PBS is a separate and independent organization that is governed by its own board of directors."

John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, called Bell's nomination a victory of "inside-the-Beltway connections and ideology."

"We hope he will live up to his statements ... and make a positive contribution to the cause of noncommercial, public service media in the U.S.," Lawson added.

The sitcom producer said he has been stunned by the sharp criticism of his nomination, adding that it is unfair to judge him solely on his National Review columns.

"It was almost entirely people attacking me on the basis of having seen the corner of my shadow going down the hall," he said, saying that taking his comments out of context "makes it sound like I'm Rush Limbaugh with a meat cleaver."

"At one point during the confirmation process," Bell added, "I said, 'I need to go back to Hollywood, where people play fair.' "

matea.gold@latimes.com

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