June 27, 2005

Let's be honest about bias in public broadcasting. Your view of it is rooted in your own biases. Or is there an objective measure of objectivity? Would it be based on numbers of conservatives vs. liberals quoted on the air? Or perhaps the voting records of reporters and producers? Before we go all simplistic or head toward slippery slopes, let's take a closer look at the current attack on public broadcasting. By now you might know that Kenneth Tomlinson, pal of Karl Rove, appointed to the chairmanship of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by President George W. Bush, secretly hired an Indiana gentleman by the name of Fred Mann to monitor the political "balance" of NOW with Bill Moyers on PBS. That's what Tomlinson claimed, but it turns out Mann also "monitored" the Tavis Smiley show on NPR and the Diane Rehm show from WAMU in Washington. What did he find, besides the fact that Bill Moyers has been off the air for the past six months? This gets interesting: Mann created guest lists with ratings "L" for liberal, "C" for conservative, and "anti-administration" for anyone raising questions about the Bush presidency. Scary, but perhaps somewhat statistically useful, depending on the intent of the statistical user. So for example Republican Senator Chuck Hagel was rated an "L" because he "expressed doubts about Iraq in a discussion mainly devoted to praising Ronald Reagan," according to a report by Frank Rich of the New York Times. There's more, and it may get reported...unless the reporters are too cowed of the fear they'll end up on this or another list as "anti-administration." Mr. Tomlinson signed contracts to hire people (we don't yet know how many) to measure the political balance of public TV and radio shows based on a rather politically unbalanced scale, and paid them public money. CPB was charged by Congress to shield public broadcasting from government influence. He hasn't been exactly forthcoming about the details, and this whole thing is giving off a strong and unpleasant scent. If reporters are not too cowed, we may be in for some very interesting stories.

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