Dear Friend,

This year Democracy Now! is celebrating our 25th anniversary—that’s 25 years of bringing you fearless, independent journalism. Since our first broadcast in 1996, Democracy Now! has refused to take corporate or government funding, because nothing is more important to us than our editorial independence. But that means we rely on you, our audience, for support. If everyone who tunes in to Democracy Now! gave just $4, we could cover our operating expenses for the entire year. Really, that’s all it would take. Right now a generous donor will DOUBLE your donation, making it twice as valuable to Democracy Now! Please do your part today, and thank you so much.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


A 'Right-Wing Coup' at PBS & the CPB? A Roundtable Discussion on the Future of Public Broadcasting

Media Options

On Wednesday, Reps. David Obey (D-WI) and John Dingell (D-MI) called for an investigation of the Corporation Public Broadcasting. This comes following accusations that the CPB has been largely taken over by conservatives who are influencing programming and hiring decisions. Obey requested that the Inspector General for the CPB, investigate whether the CPB is violating the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that prohibits interference by federal officials over the content and distribution of public programming, and forbids “political or other tests” from being used in CPB hiring decisions.

We speak with Obey as well as PBS host Tavis Smiley, PBS board member Norman Ornstein, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and media analyst Robert McChesney, who is organizing this weekend’s National Conference on Media Reform. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday, two congressmen called for an investigation into reports that the Republican Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Tomlinson, is pushing for political control over public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting or CPB is a private, nonprofit entity financed by Congress to ensure the vitality of public television and radio. CPB develops programming for National Public Radio, Public Radio International and PBS. Appointees of President Bush currently control the majority of seats on CPB’s eight-member board.

Wisconsin Democrat, David Obey, and Michigan Democrat, John Dingell, requested that the Inspector General for the CPB, investigate whether the CPB is violating the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This act prohibits interference by Federal officials over the content and distribution of public programming, and forbids “political or other tests” from being used in CPB hiring decisions.

The letter from the congressmen came after a flurry of high profile personnel changes and revelations that have sparked controversy and charges that CBP is moving to the right. In April, the CBP board did not renew the contract of its chief executive, Kathleen Cox. Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson tapped Ken Ferree — a former top aide to Michael Powell at the Federal Communications Commission — to be her temporary replacement. Ferree alarmed many when he suggested in a recent New York Times magazine article that he didn’t watch much PBS or listen to NPR.

Also in April, CPB appointed a pair of veteran journalists to review public TV and radio programming for evidence of bias–the first time in CPB’s 38-year history that it has established such positions. In an article in the Washington Post, an anonymous senior FCC official was quoted as saying that the CPB, “is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It’s almost like a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated.”

And last week, a report in the New York Times revealed that Tomlinson hired an outside consultant last year to keep track of the political leanings of guests on the PBS program Now! With Bill Moyers. The paper also reported that Tomlinson had worked to kill a legislative proposal that would have required more radio and TV veterans on the CPB Board and he has made clear that a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Patricia Harrison, is his preferred choice for the vacant CPB presidency.

In response to the Times article, Tomlinson published an Op-Ed in the Washington Times writing “To me and many other supporters of public broadcasting the image of the left-wing bias of ”NOW” — unchallenged by a balancing point of view on public broadcasting’s Friday evening lineup — was unhealthy. Indeed, it jeopardized essential support for public TV.”

  • Robert McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of eight books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. He is the co-founder of Free Press which is organizing this week’s National Conference on Media Reform here in St. Louis.
  • Jeffrey Chester, Executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
  • Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
  • Tavis Smiley, hosts Tavis Smiley which airs nationally on PBS stations , and a radio show, The Tavis Smiley Show broadcasted by Public Radio International.
  • Rep. David Obey, Democratic Congressman from Wisconsin

Related Story

StoryDec 07, 2021As Noam Chomsky Turns 93, He Urges Young People to Create a “Much Better World” Through Activism
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about these developments, we’re joined by a panel of guests. Here in Urbana, Illinois, we’re joined by Robert McChesney, professor here at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and author of eight books including Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. On the phone from Los Angeles, we’ll be joined by Tavis Smiley, host of the television program “Tavis Smiley,” which airs on PBS nationally, and a radio program, “The Tavis Smiley Show,” which is being broadcast by Public Radio International. On the phone with us from Washington, D.C., Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Also from D.C., Norman Ornstein, a member of the Board of Directors of PBS and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. We’re going to begin with Jeff Chester. You’ve been putting out a lot of documents over the last few weeks. Can you sum up your concerns?

JEFF CHESTER: Well, there’s no question that the chair of the CPB board, Ken Tomlinson, backed by the G.O.P. majority is putting tremendous pressure on PBS, in particular. As Ken Auletta, the New Yorker media writer, reported last year, the GOP has realized they can’t really kill public television, in particular. It’s too popular, because, in part, of its children’s programming. So they decided to transform it, to weaken it, to eliminate the kind of serious news and investigative reporting that public broadcasting occasionally does and to put, in essence, a kind of GOP imprimatur over, in particular, the news and public affairs. So there’s tremendous pressure going on.

They have appointed these new watchdogs who have a sort of a dubious reputation to oversee all programming on public TV and public radio, including this show. They have a wide mandate to investigate any programming on any public radio or television station regardless of whether or not they’re CPB or federal funding. So there’s tremendous pressure right now behind the scenes in public broadcasting; and I’ve said that Tomlinson is really channeling sort of Richard Nixon here. There’s an enemies list. Bill Moyers is on that list. There’s backchannel communications with the White House to develop strategy. There’s pressure on programmers. They tried to get PBS to sign a contract that would give CPB much more control over individual programs — thankfully, PBS rejected that contract — and, of course, there’s been a slew of senior executives fired in part because those executives told the GOP board chair, Ken Tomlinson: 'Look the polls that you commissioned, the two polls you commissioned from a GOP firm showed the public doesn't perceive bias. Eighty percent of the American public thinks that PBS and NPR is doing a fine job.’ So there is a kind of invisible campaign going on — these articles are now exposing it — to transform public television and eventually public radio and, frankly, including the stations that carry your program.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, can you talk about a document that you got a hold of that was sent from CPB to PBS, a kind of contract? And I also do want to say that we invited any representative from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to join us, but they declined our invitation for today. Jeff Chester.

JEFF CHESTER: Well, for the last 17, 18 years, PBS and CPB sign a annual contract, and it allows the transfer of funds, the CPB federal funds, to PBS, to underwrite its national programming service, which includes some of its prime time programs and children’s programs. And for the first time in 18 years, in essence, what CPB demanded was to have much greater control over what PBS decides in terms of the programs it will commit to for its national programming service. In essence, if PBS did not agree that its programs would reflect the research and the goals that CPB has developed, in essence, to accomplish this Republican agenda, then CPB had the right to refuse to provide it with funds. So, this was an unprecedented attempt on the part of CPB to really control the programming content on PBS; and it does illustrate another problem, is that public television in this country is so enfeebled that for, in essence, a measly $25 million — nothing for the commercial networks, but that’s what really we were talking about — it went through all kinds of contortions until it decided, of course, to reject this contract last April.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to talk about that and more in just a minute. We’re joined by a roundtable of people to talk about the state of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and particularly PBS.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. We’re joined by a roundtable of people, including Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy; Norm Ornstein, the American Enterprise Institute, who sits on the board of directors of PBS; Bob McChesney, in the studio with us, a professor here at the University of Illinois, author of many books on the media. I wanted to go to Bob McChesney. As you hear Jeff Chester sum up his concerns, your thoughts as you look at the history of the media and where public broadcasting fits into it.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think Jeff’s concerns are — he nails it. He’s right on target. This is a severe crisis right now that public broadcasting face. And I think, you know, to put it in context, the United States has never had public broadcasting in the sense that most countries has had it, which has been a non-profit, non-commercial service for the entire population with a direct relationship to it. Here in the United States, our public broadcasting developed after the commercial interests had basically taken over the airwaves. And they got first claim to programming. When public broadcasting came along in the '60s, its job was to do the programs that those guys couldn't make any money off of, that they were being criticized for not doing. So they were put in a very difficult position. They weren’t allowed to do shows that developed a big audience. And then, ideologically they were put in the position they couldn’t do news programs that went outside the boundaries either or they would face political pressure in Washington. So if you understand the sort of way their hands were tied behind their back from the outset, what public broadcasting has accomplished in this country is actually fairly impressive, given the difficult sort of scenario they were put into. And they fought hard and I think some of the stations have done a terrific job in that context, but it’s always been a difficult battle, because you never get political support, you’re getting political censorship, and you’re struggling for support with commercial underwriting, with trying to get listeners and viewers. But I think what we’re seeing now, as Jeff points out, is that there’s such a policing now of intellectual content in this country that this is a blatant attempt by the Bush administration to say, well, here’s like any sort of dissident voices that we can get our hands on to quash, we have to, and I think that’s the only way to interpret what Tomlinson is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Ornstein, you are member of the Board of Directors of PBS. Are you concerned?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Oh yeah, I think we’re all concerned. You know, the way in which public broadcasting was set up in this country, the governing structure was always insane, frankly, layers of different areas of responsibility and administration. There’s always been tremendous tensions between the stations and PBS itself, a programming service. CPB is an entity which was the conduit for federal funds. It was also supposed to provide — set up that way to provide a firewall between the political process and the programming. And if you have not a firewall, but a fire, then that’s a major concern. It fits in with a lot of other concerns, frankly. You know, public broadcasting in this country is going to struggle as it will in other countries, as it is in other countries, when you have all of a sudden a 500-channel universe. It’s a different world, and you have to justify yourself in a different way. If you have got an arts channel and an opera channel and a fishing channel and a National Geographic channel and all kinds of other things, what is it that makes public broadcasting different and unique? Ultimately, that justifies the public involvement.

At the same time, as we make the transition to digital broadcasting, there’s a tremendous expense, and the money that’s coming in both to pay for the transition and that will end up covering the ability to do the things that public broadcasting can do in a digital age, is going to be a struggle, as well. We have been spending a lot of our time trying to make sure we could have a bright digital future. So, you put all of those things together, and you have got headaches even if there weren’t this kind of political problem.

I will tell you, frankly, that during my service on the board, I was very uneasy about the Moyers show because I saw the show as basically public broadcasting putting a “kick me” sign on the back, and I knew what was going to happen from that. What we have had with the Moyers show is a highly visible prime time news show, in which Bill acted both as advocate and commentator and anchor. It’s very difficult to mix those roles. And I knew what was going to happen was we would get a kind of criticism and pressure that would lead to some kind of right-wing shows to balance the left-wing show. We got it with Tucker Carlson’s show. We got it with ”Wall Street Journal Report.”

And what I have feared for a long time is that we would lose our identity in public affairs, which should be and has to be distinct from what’s offered on cable or what’s offered on commercial broadcasting, public affairs. Commercial broadcasting public affairs has become dumbed down and shallow, as they struggle to deal with the fact that they’re money losers for their corporate entities, and cable is all shouting all the time. What they love is to put somebody from one end shouting at somebody from the other end. Public broadcasting has not had, in an overall sense, bias in its public affairs. It has had the leading lights of the news hour of “Frontline,” where you can have points of view expressed, but it’s very, very hard to make the case that they tilt one way or the other. With “Washington Week,” with a whole series of other programs, with the Ken Burns documentaries that stand out as beacons. And once you move in a direction where you’ve got to balance left wing against right wing, you look like cable. And taking cable people like Tucker Carlson, I thought, was leading us in a direction where we would lose any sense of why we had a justification in public affairs in a 500-channel universe. So there are lots of areas of concern here, and of course, they’re going to be exploited by political entities.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Norm has hit on a really — first, the great question he asked: Was there a justification for public broadcasting in a 500-channel universe? He actually answered that at the end of his point, because he pointed out that even with 500 channels there’s a lot that’s not being done or a lot that’s being done poorly. And what’s striking around the world, if you look at Germany and Britain and northern Europe and Japan, is that public broadcasting — they thought it would all decline around the world with the advent of satellite television — is booming, because the services that non-commercial, well-funded public broadcasting could provide, especially in a country like the United States — imagine what we could have the local news that was done by public broadcasters — are so clear to people, they’re flocking to it now. It’s doing better than ever in many respects in countries around the world. So we have seen the answer to the question. There’s a definite place for public broadcasting, non-profit, non-commercial broadcasting. I think where I would sort of take difference with Mr. Ornstein, was his categorization of the Moyers show, because the Moyers show was not a liberal or left-wing version of the right-wing talk show. It was an investigative journalism show. Bill actually broke stories. He investigated people in power. And frankly, if they put on a conservative-oriented investigative show, I think that would have been terrific. But you don’t balance an investigative journalism show with pontificators that just sort of shout out sound bites but don’t actually do any journalism, don’t get dirt under their fingernails, and that’s why I don’t think that’s a legitimate comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the tradition of muckraking journalism? Can you talk a little about it?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think as Norm pointed out that’s pretty much dead in commercial broadcast media. We don’t have hard investigations of people in power. As we saw during the buildup to the Iraq war, most depressingly, too much of what passes for broadcast journalism is stenography for press releases. There’s not much investigation digging behind the claims of people in power. And what Bill did by doing that is called liberal journalism, but I don’t know why exactly it’s liberal journalism when you investigate what people in power say. Because if Bill Moyers doesn’t apply that to democrats, that’s legitimate. But as far as I can tell, Bill Moyers has one standard he applies to anyone in power.

AMY GOODMAN: In The New York Times last week, their piece called, “Republican Chair Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Biases,” they write, “In late March, on the recommendation of administration officials, Kenneth Tomlinson hired the Director of the White House Office of Global Communications as a senior staff member. While she was still on the White House staff, she helped craft guidelines, governing the work of two ombudsman whom the corporation recently appointed to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts. Tomlinson also encouraged Corporation and public broadcasting officials to broadcast the “Journal Editorial Report,” whose host, Paul Gigot, is editor of the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and while a search firm has been retained to find a successor for Kathleen Cox, the Corporation’s president and chief executive, whose contract wasn’t renewed, Tomlinson has made clear to the board his choice is Patricia Harrison, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, who is now an Assistant Secretary of State.” Norm Ornstein?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, I don’t like — first of all, I don’t like the idea of having ombudsmen at —- although, you know, they did not pick crazy people, Ken Bode is certainly a distinguished journalist -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Bode, as well as — of formerly with NBC, and the other ombudsman, Jeff Chester, with Reader’s Digest? We’ll get him back on. Norm Ornstein, your response.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, the whole concept of having ombudsman at this point is a suggestion that you have got bias in your public affairs. And my own judgment is that if you leave Moyers and these response shows to it aside, I just have [inaudible] anything that would suggest a bias in the public affairs arena. So I didn’t find that a particularly appropriate move to make. And you have got to be concerned. Frankly, I don’t know why you have a board at CPB that includes people from both sides. I can’t understand why we haven’t heard anything from any of the board members, including those who were appointed by democrats, about what’s going on inside. I just don’t understand it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask Jeff Chester if he can join. Let me ask Jeff Chester if he can join in this discussion about the ombudspeople, and what they’re supposed to be doing, and who they are?

JEFFREY CHESTER: First in terms of the democrats on the CPB board, I have spoken to some. I mean, there’s one outstanding vacancy, and we know from the Ken Auletta story that the White House refused to support the democratic nominee, Professor Chon Noriega, because he said during his White House vetting that he would not censor individual programs, but according to my sources on the CPB board, no matter what the democrats say, the chairperson keeps returning to this idea that there’s bias in the program. Mr. Tomlinson, despite these two polls, is completely fixated on the fact that he sees bias throughout the public television schedule. It’s not just Mr. Moyers, and there I also have to agree here that one of my concerns is that what Tomlinson and company are critiquing is the serious journalism that you saw in “Now.” I mean, you have people working on the “Now” show who are refugees from the network evening news departments, Norm. You know, it’s the only place left where you can do serious investigative reporting. And I understand the concern that some people had about the commentary. But the reporting is first rate, and it’s that kind of reporting, frankly, that makes public television potentially distinct in this multi-channel universe and it’s that kind of serious investigative reporting that in fact is the target of Tomlinson and company.

Now, as Tomlinson is trying to, you know, squeeze public television to make programming decisions that reflect his and the GOP agenda, they have chosen these two people who frankly have a conflict of interest. I mean, Ken Bode was a distinguished journalist, but, you know, he in essence was fired from his PBS show and replaced by Gwen Ifill. That was the “Washington Week in Review.” So he may harbor some, you know, grudge, unconscious or not, against public broadcasting. Mr. Schultz is completely inappropriate, a crony of Tomlinson from years back with strong connections into the hard right of the Republican Party. These guys have been told, go and look at whatever you want. Look at Pacifica, you know, look at NPR and report back to us, and we’ll publicize it, etc. So it’s part of the infrastructure of control that Tomlinson and company have set up. And finally, you know, it’s always a little confusing about the role of CPB in programming, but CPB is pushing a programming agenda, including its new programming chief, who is a conservative programmer, named Michael Pack, who used to work with Lynne Cheney. He has created a whole new series.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynne Cheney, the Vice President’ wife, former chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities.

JEFFREY CHESTER: That’s right. And we know from the Ken Auletta story that Michael Pack was the producer when Lynne Cheney brought PBS president Pat Mitchell into the Vice President’s residence about two years ago to pitch a children’s series, while Pack is now running a series at CPB, “America at the Crossroads,” which is to look at the nature of international terrorism, states that harbor, response to terrorists. So there’s a conservative programming agenda at CPB now underway, which is one reason why Congress, the democrats, have asked for this data.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeff Chester, Norm Ornstein, Bob McChesney, we’re also joined on the line now from Los Angeles by Tavis Smiley, who is host of a PBS television program as well as a radio program, “The Tavis Smiley Show,” which is broadcasting out of Public Radio International. Welcome to Democracy Now!, as well, Tavis.

TAVIS SMILEY: Amy, nice to have you on, and good morning to all your guests.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about your response to the latest news about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, headlines like those in The New York Times around the issue of pressure being put on PBS and public broadcasting by the chair of the CPB?

TAVIS SMILEY: Who was the last person speaking just before I came on?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeff Chester.

TAVIS SMILEY: That was Jeff. First of all, let me just say in the — as we say, in the fine tradition of the black church, amen. When I heard Jeff saying at end with regard to the politics of — the politics being played around this issue, I would have to agree with everything Jeff said. I mean, it’s pretty clear to me, you would have — I mean, Stevie Wonder can see that there are clearly politics being played around this particular issue with regard to CPB and the way they do business, and not just politics but indeed partisan politics being played, as Jeff was pointing out. I guess my take is a little bit different, and, you know, I guess I’d want to expand the conversation to talk about how we’re actually defining the term conservative politics. So it’s clear they have a conservative political agenda where CPB is concerned, but when I talk about conservativism, I’m expanding it beyond just the pure partisan political agenda to talk more also — to talk more, rather, about the issue of diversity.

I have, as you know, a program on public radio and a program on public television, the only American to be nationally heard on both public radio and public television every day. And the reality is that up until 2001, when I became the first African American to host his own show, and certainly a show geared toward bringing in a broader audience of listeners to public radio, CPB had not thought it important enough prior to that time and even since that time, to really reach out to expand public radio to a broader audience. That is an indictment not just on conservatives but liberals alike, or so-called liberals, but it certainly is getting worse and getting more difficult to put program on that reaches out not just — reaches out, rather, to a broader audience. And I see that process becoming more difficult than it was even four years ago, given the conservative politics that are being played here.

How do I know that? Because after I started the public radio program, then we decided to go to public television, and we have now a very successful program in its second season on PBS, that is doing the same thing that our radio program has done. We have the youngest demographic. We have the most multicultural, multiracial audience. We have an educated audience. We have all the things that a — that anybody at CPB or PBS or public radio could want in terms of audience demographics, and yet when we went to CPB to get our television program on the air, with all of the success we were having on public radio, CPB did not fund, did not support the television show.

This is not an axe to grind. Our show is in its second season. We, at this point, don’t want CPB money. We’re off and running, not a problem. The point I’m raising here, Amy, very quickly is that this agenda, this conservative agenda does not allow for us to have conversations on public radio or public television that are, pardon the phrase, fair and balanced. That’s a problem, this political partisan agenda, but beyond that it creates a broader problem, because in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, I do not see with these kinds of folk pushing their agenda how we’re ever going to make public radio sound like America looks, how we ever get public television to look like America looks. And that’s another problem for those of us who happen to be persons of color who value public radio, who value public television and are frightened about what’s happening right now at CPB.

JEFFREY CHESTER: Can I say something?


TAVIS SMILEY: I did leave NPR. And I left NPR for that very reason, that I did not think, quite frankly, that NPR was as serious as I thought they were when I joined them about diversity, about inclusion. I’m one African American. The show was doing extremely well, the fastest growing program, again, in the history of NPR. Nobody there would argue those numbers. The fact of the matter was, after three years, I was pushing for some movement. I thought that given the success that we had, people in the building should have seen the light and not have to force me to make them feel the heat to build upon the success that we have had, or had had while I was there. So, to make a long story short without, you know, casting aspersion again on NPR, I just decided the best thing for me to do — I didn’t want to be used as a front, I didn’t want to be window dressing — so the best thing for me to do was to leave and to start all over again. Now, one doesn’t walk away from almost 100 stations that it takes you three years to build up to, being heard in 92-94% of the country. One doesn’t walk away from that. That’s a tough and difficult decision to make. But for me, the issue of diversity and inclusion was important enough to walk away with the hope of shining a light on what was not being done, so that in the months and years to come, we can live up to the true ideals of what public television and, in that regard, public radio really ought to be about.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, you have been talking about holding public meetings and addressing this issue of fair and balanced. Who determines what’s one side and what’s the other?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think, clearly what we are seeing in the case of Tomlinson is this sort of definition of fair and balanced is ideological, it’s opportunistic, it has no principle behind it. I mean, I think, as Tavis Smiley just pointed out, if one were to just look at the programming on NPR and PBS stations and say, well, what is sort of — what’s going on here? What’s missing? I mean, the thing that jumps out is the lack of diversity, as he points out, of people of color. I mean, striking the lack of any coverage of working class people or labor issues, all of the business shows — but, you know, you don’t hear Ken Tomlinson saying, better get labor programs on, better hear what consumers and workers think about the economy. So, blatantly opportunistic tone of this sort of sense of balance, I think, is apparent. The way to get the answer to this — you know, ironically now, there used to be a firewall between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the management, theoretically, so they wouldn’t feel political pressure for every decision they make. That firewall is coming down. The firewall that’s still there that has to come down is between the people in this country, the listeners, the viewers, the potential viewers and listeners and the managers and the politicians. We can’t let the Ken Tomlinsons of the world sort of act like they represent the public, when they have no — don’t have the public’s interest at heart and there’s no evidence they have any support in the public for what they’re doing. All of the evidence we’re getting right now shows that there’s a wellspring of support for the idea of public radio and TV in this country. People like the idea, even people who don’t use the system, but there are concerns, and the primary concern is the lack of funding, first of all, and secondly, this partisan meddling by people like Ken Tomlinson.

AMY GOODMAN: Free Press did a study. You did a sort of poll in a few areas?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, we’ve done a series of focus groups with working class people in the last few weeks. And we don’t — haven’t gotten the final data in, but we were struck by the degree of support for public broadcasting, and from a constituency not considered to be, as Tavis Smiley has said, their core audience.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, I am going to interrupt for a minute, because we have just been joined on the telephone by Congress member David Obey of Wisconsin, who I know is racing off to a Congressional briefing, having just come off of C-SPAN. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congress member Obey.

REP. DAVID OBEY: Thank you

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Now, you have joined with Congress member Dingell in writing a letter to the Inspector General of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, demanding an investigation of what?

REP. DAVID OBEY: Well, there have been a number of accounts in newspapers and stories elsewhere which would seem to indicate that Mr. Tomlinson is crossing the line in terms of trying to apply political pressure or achieve political ends for public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is specifically forbidden by law to get itself involved in programming or trying to promote or distribute programming, and from the comments that we have seen in a variety of news stories, ranging from The New York Times on the left to The Washington Times on the right, it seems that there’s considerable cause for concern.

AMY GOODMAN: And so what do you want to specifically be looked at, and I’m looking at your letter right now, which raises a number of questions, among them, that Mr. Tomlinson hired Mary Catherine Andrews while she was still director of the White House Office of Global Communications to draft guidelines for two ombudsman to review the content of public radio and television?

REP. DAVID OBEY: That’s one item. If an ombudsman is going to be created, for instance, I question whether or not it ought to report to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’m not at all convinced that that doesn’t put them right smack in the middle of making judgments about programming that they had no business making. We also would like to have them review what the circumstances were around Mr. Tomlinson’s hiring a consultant to specifically review and evaluate Bill Moyers’s show that recently went off the air. It appears that that’s the only show that was targeted. It also appears that Mr. Tomlinson was very active in trying to promote The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board’s new program with member stations around the country, and that, to me, does not seem to be legitimate.

AMY GOODMAN: The way they’re spinning your letter to the CPB Inspector General, Congressman Obey, on the Drudge Report right now, it says, “Dem Congressman: conservative voices on PBS may be illegal.”

REP. DAVID OBEY: Oh, that’s nonsense. No, no one is squawking about conservative or liberal. Or I don’t care if people are Irish, French, you name it. What I want is to see that the law is adhered to, and the law says that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed to keep its cotton-picking nose out of programming and out of politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, you’re calling for public hearings?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think the way around this — the only solution to this is to not allow these debates to be done behind closed doors in Washington without any public involvement. The voice that’s missing here entirely is the public of this country, the people who support public broadcasting, the people who watch it, the people who want it in their communities. Let’s go around the country. Let’s have public broadcasting officials, members of Congress, go out and talk to people in their communities about what they want from public broadcasting, hear what they say. I have got a feeling that Ken Tomlinson is going to be getting a real education in what the American people think they want from their public broadcasting, if he actually hears from them and not just from the White House about what he should be doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, you are calling for the resignation of Mr. Tomlinson?

JEFFREY CHESTER: It’s time that Ken Tomlinson leave. He has politicized this agency unnecessarily. He has brought disgrace upon it. Just quickly, I’d like to concur with what Mr. Smiley said. I mean, there’s a larger issue here, which is the lack of vision, in a way, that both public television and public radio have about the future. PBS in particular is in a real crisis, and you know, there should have been at this time, you know, many, many more people like Bill Moyers, people of color, women, who had series, who had programs, who had national platforms. PBS sadly has never developed that, and so one of the things we need to do is a much larger conversation, not just fight off this right-wing attack and find out whether or not CPB has broken the law, but really re-envision public media for the 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this notion that some general managers talk about on public radio and television that they need a firewall from the public in public television and radio?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: I think — go ahead, Jeff.

JEFFREY CHESTER: I think, frankly — and Norm sort of talked about this at the beginning, part of the problem is the whole arcane governance structure. A lot of public television stations now are very comfortable with their corporate underwriters. You know, I wish Free Press luck, but they’re going to find that, in many ways it’s too late to get those stations, PBS stations to change. I mean, when you have the general manager of the Nashville PBS station telling PBS we don’t want any more news or public affairs programs on the national schedule, when you have those kinds of people who are seeking just safe programs that can generate revenues from underwriting and viewer sponsorship, then you know you have a real problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. When we come back, we’re going to hear what another Congress member has to say about public broadcasting. He is Bernie Sanders, the independent of Vermont. Some are saying that he has a very good shot at becoming the Senator of Vermont when Jim Jeffords steps down after the next election. Bob McChesney of Free Press, a professor at University of Illinois; Jeff Chester of Center for Digital Democracy; Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institue; Tavis Smiley of “The Tavis Smiley Show” and PBS; Congress member Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Rep. Bernie Sanders on the Importance of Media Reform As A Political Issue

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation