For those who follow recent developments at the Public Broadcasting Service, it was no surprise: The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been quietly pressuring the public TV outlet to feature more conservative voices for at least a year.
But CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson's actions also raise concern he is pushing a pro-Republican and pro-Bush administration agenda in the guise of building conservative balance. Such meddling in content could turn PBS into a publicly funded version of the Fox News Channel - forced to make space for GOP talking points just as growing competition from cable TV and shifting audiences have made the public TV outlet particularly vulnerable.
The outward signs of PBS's nod to conservatives are hard to miss: New shows for the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board and new-school conservative Tucker Carlson; the departure of longtime progressive Bill Moyers from his newsmagazine NOW; and the decision to hold back an episode of a children's show featuring a family headed by a lesbian couple, following criticism from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
But recent stories by the Washington Post and New York Times highlight other concerns. Last year, Tomlinson hired a consultant to analyze the politics of guests on Moyer's Now, placing individuals in categories such as "anti-Bush" and "anti-DeLay." Last month, CPB president Kathleen Cox was replaced abruptly by interim appointee Ken Ferree, a top adviser to former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell who has admitted he doesn't watch much PBS or listen to National Public Radio.
And in April, the CPB hired two journalists to serve as ombudsmen, charged with assembling reports on PBS content for the first time in nearly 40 years.
It is true Moyers is a liberal, his own denials aside. And PBS is financially vulnerable, in part, because it has allowed cable outlets such as the History Channel, TLC and Nickelodeon to corner the market on programming it pioneered.
Still, PBS also has a history of presenting conservative voices, from William F. Buckley's Firing Line to John McLaughlin's The McLaughlin Group. And it is too easy to characterize tough reporting on the government or corporate interests as liberal bias. With 30 percent of the country still unable or unwilling to purchase cable TV, PBS remains an important, free source of public affairs programming, children's shows, documentaries and more.
Tomlinson's efforts appear to be an updated version of past conservative strategies to hobble PBS by cutting its funding - an overtly hostile move that failed due to widespread public support for the value of public television.
Public television's best defense remains the American people, who must convert support for the idea of PBS into more substantial financial contributions. Otherwise, the nation's public television system will increasingly find itself at the mercy of government and corporate masters with deep pockets and hidden agendas.
© 2005 St. Petersburg Times