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Lawmakers criticize efforts to monitor public television for bias

WASHINGTON—The controversy over alleged political bias in public broadcasting spilled into a Senate hearing room Monday, as lawmakers chided the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for injecting politics into public TV.

Egged on by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who ran the hearing, corporation Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson agreed to a public debate with commentator Bill Moyers on the issue. Moyers left his public affairs program in December after Tomlinson criticized him.

Tomlinson said after the meeting that his anti-bias campaign had achieved its purpose.

"I think it's essentially been resolved," he said. "It's one of those evergreen issues that's always going to pop up from time to time. I think what we need is common sense attention ... and just the kind of systematic effort that goes into issues and newsrooms all across the nation."

The appropriations subcommittee hearing was supposed to examine the funding for the corporation, which is seeking $430 million to support local stations' operations and public broadcasting programming.

Earlier, a House of Representatives panel had slashed $100 million from the funding request, but a heavy lobbying campaign got the money restored. Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate panel endorsed fully funding the corporation without much qualification.

The only person in the room opposed was David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute. Boaz argued that taxpayers shouldn't be asked to subsidize news and public affairs programming. Congress contributes about 15 percent of the annual public broadcasting budget.

"Much of the recent debate about tax-funded broadcasting has centered on whether there is ... a liberal bias" at National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service, Boaz said. "I would argue that bias is inevitable."

Tomlinson, a Republican veteran of the Reagan administration who joined the corporation's board in 2000 and became chairman three years later, had accused Moyers of "liberal advocacy journalism." Tomlinson hired ombudsmen to monitor the political content of PBS and championed a new half-hour PBS show featuring Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

"It strikes me as odd, Mr. Tomlinson, that we are on this crusade to change what's going on," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., one of 16 Democratic senators who've urged President Bush to fire Tomlinson. "I don't quite get what your agenda is and what you're trying to achieve."

Tomlinson, who appeared discomfited, said public broadcasting should demonstrate neither a conservative nor a liberal bias. Moyers' "Now" program was biased to the left, and "Wall Street Journal Report" was meant "to reflect balance in public affairs programming," he said.

A recent Roper poll found Americans believe PBS to be a highly trusted national institution. And two polls commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting revealed that 80 percent of Americans see no bias in public broadcasting, according to Pat Mitchell, the chief executive for PBS who has publicly sparred with Tomlinson.

Durbin said the concern is that public broadcasting is being politicized.

"If the public believes this," said Durbin, "it's really going to tear apart what's good about public broadcasting."

Also under fire at the hearing was Patricia S. Harrison, the newly elected president and chief executive for the corporation. Durbin noted that the former State Department official had a long career in the GOP, including being co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

Harrison vowed to be impartial.

"I believe in the mission of public broadcasting," she said. "I feel confident that I'm a fair person. Nobody owns me, ever."

Specter also twitted Tomlinson for spending $15,000 for two lobbyists to "gain insight" on a senator's thinking on a bill that the corporation opposed.

"Wouldn't a phone call from you have gotten the same result?" Specter asked. "In a time of tight budgets, keep this in mind."

Asked later if he believed there was a problem with political bias in public broadcasting, Specter said, "Not really. I think there's sufficient diversity so that people can watch anything they want. It's useful to have these hearings to keep everyone on their toes. But I think we have a fairly good balance at the moment."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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