Conservatives have long warned us that someday the commissars of political correctness are going to take over in Washington and impose their opinions on us with our own tax dollars. What they didn't tell us is that they would become those commissars, and that their politically correct orthodoxy would be the Republican Party line -- as they are now proving at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
With all the subtlety of an old-style Soviet bureaucrat, C.P.B. chairman Kenneth Tomlinson is extending partisan political control over public television. As a former Reader's Digest editor and Republican appointee, Mr. Tomlinson clearly understands what he was appointed to do.
Several weeks ago, he hired a Bush White House communications flack named Mary Catherine Andrews. She quickly set up a new "office of the ombudsman" that will oversee the content of public TV and radio broadcasts. Ms. Andrews was so eager to get to work that she began while still under the watchful eye of Karl Rove, the President's chief political advisor and a pal of Mr. Tomlinson.
According to The New York Times, Ms. Andrews "helped draft the office's guiding principles, set up a Web page and prepared a news release about the appointment of the [two] new ombudsmen," whom she apparently helped to select.
One of the ombudsmen is a former Reader's Digest editor known for his conservative Republicanism, while the other is a retired TV correspondent who endorsed the G.O.P. candidate for governor of Indiana last year and holds a fellowship at the right-wing Hudson Institute. That is how the Bush administration proposes to ensure "objective and balanced" broadcasting.
Meanwhile, Mr. Tomlinson secretly hired a consultant to inspect the content of NOW with Bill Moyers, the public-TV program that often irritated the Republican right. While Mr. Moyers certainly holds liberal views, he hosted many conservative guests, but the consultant predictably tarred him as "anti-Bush." Presumably that makes the veteran journalist an enemy of the state.
It is in Mr. Tomlinson's engineering of top appointments, however, that his urge to mimic the Soviet style approaches parody. Having ousted the former C.P.B. president, whose ideological leanings were deemed suspicious, he replaced her with Ken Ferree, yet another Republican placeholder. But Mr. Ferree is merely an interim appointee, soon to be replaced by Patricia Harrison -- a State Department official and former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
No, that isn't a misprint. Led by Mr. Rove, the Republican commissars are placing the C.P.B., with executive authority and $400 million in federal funding, under the control of a former party leader. Imagine the horrified screaming from the right if, as President, Bill Clinton had dared choose a former Democratic Party chair to oversee public broadcasting. Every right-thinking pundit and politician would howl for the immediate and total defunding of C.P.B. and the appointment of a special prosecutor, while making nasty comparisons with Soviet Russia.
The excuse for all this partisan abuse and cronyism is that favorite old conservative myth of the "liberal media." By right-wing arithmetic, Mr. Moyers alone outweighs the copious conservative programming that has graced PBS for nearly four decades, dating back to William F. Buckley's inaugural broadcast of Firing Line in 1966.
Indeed, the list of conservative and corporate-oriented shows aired on PBS over the ensuing years is quite impressive, including The McLaughlin Group, Peggy Noonan on Values, Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank, Adam Smith's Money World, Wall Street Week, National Desk featuring Laura Ingraham, Fred Barnes and Larry Elder, and Tucker Carlson's Unfiltered. (The latter is truly quality television, hosted by the same urbane wit who once said that "grouchy feminists with mustaches" run the Democratic Party.)
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, public television's flagship evening program, balanced with almost painful care, cannot be cited as an example of liberal bias. PBS has broadcast many documentaries reflecting the perspectives of corporate sponsors concerning globalization, pollution and other hot issues, yet has never agreed to a single program sponsored by a labor union.
Now, despite all their phony complaining about liberal bias and federal waste, the Republicans appear eager to spread still more of their own subsidized propaganda. Thanks to Mr. Tomlinson, PBS viewers will now be treated to The Wall Street Journal Editorial Report, a program devoted to scintillating discussion among the ideologues responsible for that newspaper's ultra-right editorial page. The taxpayers will pay to distribute their program, which was a resounding failure on commercial cable, in an arrangement The Journal's editorialists would surely denounce as scandalous if only it didn't benefit them.
No English word is adequate to describe this kind of hypocrisy.
The true test of these White House incursions will take place in the public-television marketplace, where ordinary citizens give or withhold their support. The time may be coming when they decide that their money can be spent on better things than another megaphone for Mr. Rove.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer and Salon.com, and is the author of Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth.
For more Conason columns, see his archive.
© 2005 New York Observer