Ignoring the Obvious

Drat and double drat. What good is a poll that tells you the exact opposite of what you want to hear? And then, what do you do about it?

Try again was what Kenneth Y. Tomlinson did, with surveys meant to expose the liberal bias of public broadcasting but that found none. In 2003 (attempt No. 2), audiences gave the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio a “favorable” rating of 80 percent.

Most found PBS more trustworthy than all the major TV networks, CNN and Fox News included. Nor did liberal “bias” seem to be keeping radio listeners up nights. Fewer than 15 percent found NPR’s coverage tilted against the Bush administration.

Luckily, Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, knows how to deal with such inconveniences. He used to be an editor at Reader’s Digest. There, you just ax the info that bores you.

CPB has doled out money to public TV and public radio ever since its founding, under a bipartisan banner during the Johnson administration. Besides divvying the dough, its main job has been to insulate both outlets from politics.

But Tomlinson, a crony of Karl Rove’s, has made it his mission to bring more “balance” to the operation. His main gripe seems to be Bill Moyers, whose program Now looks critically at issues of the day.

Moyers has actually retired from the show, but what difference does that make? In the Republican universe, all blame flows to departed guys named Bill.

Do not bother Tomlinson with the fact that PBS has had conservative programming aplenty (of late, Tucker Carlson’s Unfiltered and The Wall Street Journal Report, a lively roundup of right-wing opinion that CNBC had to let go, probably because it was too tremendous).

Tomlinson is appointing two ombudsmen to root out unbalanced content. And in fact, according to The New York Times, he had a content wrangler working for him just last year. Fred Mann, ex-employee of a conservative journalism center, was hard at it, scanning the slant of Now. Tomlinson just never bothered to tell CPB’s board about him. The corporation’s inspector general is investigating.

For even more balance, Tomlinson wanted Patricia Harrison as CPB’s new president, a job she won. Patricia Harrison is a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. For her prowess in neutralizing Democrats she has been likened to a cruise missile. Shredded newspaper would have better insulating power.

Difficult though it may be to accept, balance is not really what Tomlinson is after. It’s control of information, a Bush obsession.

The president and his crew see no difference between negative opinion and facts that may reflect negatively on them. They have proved masters at spreading a sunny view of their deeds, and will happily alter data.

Ombudsmen are just the beginning of the campaign to cripple public broadcasting, with its pesky interest in the truth. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would nearly halve the budget for public TV and radio.

It is sheer genius: The more Tomlinson appears to be getting his way, politicizing CPB, the more member support is likely to erode, draining still more dollars. Meanwhile, staff members appalled by Tomlinson are resigning.

Tax dollars pay only part of public broadcasting’s costs (around 15 percent of PBS’s operating budget for example). Citizens and other private sponsors shoulder much of the burden. And many do so because they value news gathering freed from marketplace pressures. Especially for small and remote stations, federal funds provide a crucial foundation.

Ironically, the drive to silence public broadcasting comes at a time when the Bush forces are using tax dollars to manufacture their own “news.”

In January, it came out that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to sing the splendors of No Child Left Behind.

After more instances emerged, the president called a halt to taxpayer-financed propaganda. But it could well still be going on.

In March, a New York Times investigation found that over the past four years, at least 20 federal agencies had sent out hundreds of TV segments touting the government’s activities. Often, budget-strapped stations neglected to mention the source, or even aired the material as if it were real reporting of its own.

Millions of households have witnessed these segments, which can blend seamlessly with regular news. A study by congressional Democrats found that in its first term, the Bush administration spent $254 million on such public-relations contracts _ more than half CPB’s annual budget.

As for balance, you’d have better luck finding it on a teeter-totter. A segment on the new Medicare drug benefit, which ran on 40 stations, failed to mention criticism that it was an expensive giveaway to the drug companies.

An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the segment was not strictly factual. Morever, noting that these segments may amount to “covert propaganda,” the GAO recently held that federal agencies may not make prepackaged reports that cloud their origins. The Justice Department told agencies to ignore the finding.

(In April, the Senate voted unanimously to require full disclosure; the Federal Communications Commission told broadcasters it would be a good idea.)

None other than Patricia Harrison, testifying for the State Department, told Congress last year that the White House sees these “good news” segments as terrific tools for swaying opinion.

Does anyone really need to ask what public broadcasting could become under the Tomlinson Reader’s Digest model?

(M.J. Andersen is a member of The Providence Journal’s editorial board.)