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Another battle for the CPB

The nomination of a conservative TV executive to the public broadcasting board touches off alarms.

July 14, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Less than a year after the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was forced to resign amid charges that he injected partisanship into the agency, President Bush has nominated to the nonprofit's board a television sitcom producer who has described himself as "thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues."

The nomination of Warren Bell, executive producer of ABC's "According to Jim" and a contributor to the online edition of the conservative National Review magazine, has puzzled and alarmed some public broadcasters, who fear he would revive the sharp political debate that engulfed the system last year.

Bell said he was surprised by his nomination but stressed that he had no intention of letting his personal political beliefs influence his role on the board. He asked skeptics to withhold judgment until they have a chance to hear about his goals for the post.

"I have every intention of working in a nonpartisan fashion with CPB," he said. "Anybody who spends 15 minutes talking to me will find that I am an eminently reasonable man."

But Bell's past comments have raised eyebrows among some Democrats who serve on the Senate Commerce Committee, which must approve his nomination. Questions about his qualifications are expected to dominate his confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

"Based on what we know right now, this nominee doesn't appear to have the credentials and background one would expect for this position, which is in contrast to the other nominees," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a committee member. "I am also concerned about some of the partisan statements Mr. Bell has made over the years."

The disquiet over Bell's nomination comes on the heels of last year's controversy, triggered by then-board Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who worked aggressively to right what he saw as a liberal slant at PBS and NPR.

Tomlinson was ultimately forced to resign in November after an internal investigation by the corporation's inspector general found that his push for more conservative viewpoints on the air broke federal law and violated the agency's policies. The CPB, a private nonprofit responsible for distributing federal funds to local television and radio stations, is supposed to serve as a political buffer for public broadcasting.

Bush nominated Bell in late June to fill Tomlinson's former slot on the nine-member board (although he would not serve as chairman, a position that the board selects separately). After reading his postings on the National Review Online, public broadcasters grew worried that he has his own partisan agenda.

"We are definitely concerned about Warren Bell's nomination," said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. "After the damage caused by Ken Tomlinson's activities, the last thing we need on the CPB board is another ideologue of any stripe."

There's no question Bell has been outspoken in his political views. In frequent postings to the National Review Online during the last two years, he described himself as a "not-so-secret conservative" and lamented the liberalism of his colleagues in the entertainment industry.

In one particularly controversial blog entry last August, he expressed frustration at being asked by Disney executives to cast more minorities on "According to Jim."

(Bell said this week that he apologized for the posting at the time and that he "wholeheartedly" supports the company's diversity policy.)

Most of Bell's pieces for National Review Online have been jocular essays on topics as varied as Carol Burnett, his Maserati and condom commercials. But some contained partisan gibes.

"I could reach across the aisle and hug Nancy Pelosi, and I would, except this is a new shirt, and that sort of thing leaves a stain," he wrote in May 2005.

In a phone interview this week, Bell said the statement was a joke intended for the website's conservative readers. "If Congresswoman Pelosi would like a hug, it's there for her," he said.

"What I do for the National Review is speak my mind and generally try to be funny," Bell added. "My intent for my service with CPB is to ensure a strong healthy, vibrant public broadcasting system for everyone to be proud of. My politics can't enter into it. It's not a partisan position."

Many public broadcasting officials were perplexed last month when the White House tapped Bell to be on the board, along with two other expected nominees: former Arkansas Sen. David H. Pryor and Chris Boskin, a board member of San Francisco's KQED. Although he has worked for 17 years as a writer and producer for sitcoms such as "Life's Work," "Ellen" and "Coach," Bell, 43, does not have any public broadcasting experience.

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