WASHINGTON -- Executives at National Public Radio are increasingly at odds with the Bush appointees who lead the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In one of several points of conflict in recent months, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which allocates federal funds for public radio and television, is considering a plan to monitor Middle East coverage on NPR news programs for evidence of bias, a corporation spokesman said on Friday.
The corporation's board has told its staff that it should consider redirecting money away from national newscasts and toward music programs produced by NPR stations.
Top officials at NPR and member stations are upset as well about the corporation's decision to appoint two ombudsmen to judge the content of programs for balance. And managers of public radio stations criticized the corporation in a resolution offered at their annual meeting two weeks ago urging it not to interfere in NPR editorial decisions.
The corporation's chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, has also blocked NPR from broadcasting its programs on a station in Berlin owned by the United States government.
Mr. Tomlinson denied several requests last week to discuss the relationship between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and NPR, but he issued a one-sentence statement saying that he looked forward to "working through any differences that may exist between our institutions." In a column last week in The Washington Times and in an appearance on Tucker Carlson's talk show on PBS, he repeated his belief that public broadcasting's reputation of being left-leaning was a problem.
Mr. Tomlinson has been waging a campaign to correct what he and other conservatives see as a liberal bias in public television programming. That effort has been criticized by leaders of public television who say it poses a threat to their editorial independence. At the request of two senior Democratic members of Congress, the inspector general at the corporation is examining whether Mr. Tomlinson's decision to monitor only one television program, "Now," with Bill Moyers, and his decision to retain a White House official who helped create guidelines for the two ombudsmen may have violated a law that is supposed to insulate public broadcasting from politics.
But the law also assigns the corporation the responsibility of ensuring balance and objectivity in programming, a function that Mr. Tomlinson says is of paramount importance for the sustained viability and political support of public broadcasting.
About a quarter of the corporation's $400 million budget goes to radio, with most of the rest to television. NPR recently received a huge bequest from the estate of Joan B. Kroc, the widow of the founder of McDonald's, and it gets only about 1 percent of its overall funds directly from the corporation. But its member stations are far more reliant on the corporation's money, and they use a significant part of that to buy programs produced by NPR and others.
Last month, the corporation's board, which is dominated by Republicans named by President Bush, told the staff at a meeting that it should prepare to redirect the relatively modest number of grants available for radio programs away from national news, officials at the corporation and NPR said.
"We heard sentiments from the board that they are interested in support of more music," said Vincent Curran, a senior vice president in charge of the radio division. He said that the board had made no final decisions on funds.
Participants in that meeting said there was a brief discussion by board members in which one of them, Gay Hart Gaines, talked about the need to change programming in light of a conversation she had had with a taxi driver about his listening habits. Ms. Gaines, a Republican fund-raiser and the head of the political action committee of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, did not return a call to her office seeking comment.
In recent years, the corporation has provided funds for NPR programs like "The Tavis Smiley Show" and "Day to Day." A third NPR program, "News and Notes," recently applied for money. Mr. Tomlinson has told some board members that the corporation would no longer provide funds for "Weekend America," a public affairs program produced by Minnesota Public Radio, people briefed on those discussions said.
Over the objections of senior NPR executives, the corporation decided in April to appoint the two ombudsmen to monitor radio and television content. At a meeting in February, Kevin Klose, NPR's president, was told by Mr. Tomlinson that the corporation would have a liberal ombudsman and a conservative one, participants in the meeting said. They said Mr. Klose told Mr. Tomlinson that this idea showed a fundamental misunderstanding of both journalism and the role of an ombudsman.
NPR has had its own ombudsman for the last five years, and executives there say they are concerned that having two at the agency that provides funds for programs could lead to editorial interference.
The resolution from representatives of public radio stations that was presented at the recent meeting in Washington denounced the move, and called on the corporation to "refrain from interfering in constitutionally protected content decisions" and to act as a firewall to insulate public broadcasting from politics. The lack of a quorum prevented a vote on the resolution, but a poll of the more than 80 people there showed unanimous support for it.
Late last year, without notifying board members or NPR, Mr. Tomlinson contacted S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group, about conducting a study on whether NPR's Middle East coverage was more favorable to Arabs than to Israelis, Mr. Lichter said. He added that although there were follow-up conversations as recently as February, officials at the corporation had not moved ahead with the project.
A spokesman for the corporation, Eben Peck, said it had not decided how it would monitor coverage of the Middle East on NPR.
"We're still assessing and looking at various methodologies that would allow an assessment of NPR's Middle East coverage," Mr. Peck said.
Other officials said Mr. Tomlinson had heard complaints about the coverage from a board member, Cheryl Halpern, a former chairwoman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and leading party fund-raiser whose family has business interests in Israel. The corporation has also heard complaints from Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California.
Besides his role at the corporation, Mr. Tomlinson heads the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises most United States government broadcasts overseas, including those of the Voice of America. He has continued the policy of his predecessors on that board of blocking NPR from putting its programs on a Berlin station that the German government gave to the United States in the early 1990's after reunification. NPR, which has a significant presence overseas, has long sought to enter Berlin, the largest radio market in Western Europe.
Mr. Tomlinson has instead favored programming offered by a European business executive that includes newscasts produced by the Voice of America, which is restricted by law from broadcasting in English in most European countries. German regulators are considering the two options.
In a 2003 letter to Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Tomlinson suggested that it would further the national interest to use the station to broadcast programs by Voice of America rather than NPR.
Some NPR officials suggest that Mr. Tomlinson has a conflict of interest as the head of both the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
"It certainly calls into question where his allegiance lies," said Tim Eby, chairman of NPR and manager of the public radio stations run by Ohio State University in Columbus.
Mr. Peck, the corporation spokesman, said Mr. Tomlinson "does not think there is a conflict of interest."
In an interview last week, Mr. Eby said NPR executives had been particularly worried because they were not getting full information about what had been happening at the corporation.
"Everybody has been concerned in a lot of ways because there's been a real lack of transparency about what's been going on there," he said.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company