Frank Rich hits the nail on the head once again. In his Sunday column in the New York Times (“The Armstrong Williams NewsHour“), Rich points out that the current Republican assault on public broadcasting is different from those in the past. Nobody’s trying to do away with PBS or NPR, so Big Bird is far from an endangered species. But…
That doesn’t mean the right’s new assault on public broadcasting is toothless, far from it. But this time the game is far more insidious and ingenious. The intent is not to kill off PBS and NPR but to castrate them by quietly annexing their news and public affairs operations to the larger state propaganda machine that the Bush White House has been steadily constructing at taxpayers’ expense. If you liked the fake government news videos that ended up on local stations – or thrilled to the “journalism” of Armstrong Williams and other columnists who were covertly paid to promote administration policies – you’ll love the brave new world this crowd envisions for public TV and radio.
Rich advises that if you want to understand the Bush administration’s intentions you must “follow the money”… not the $100 million the House threatens to cut from public broadcasting’s budget, but rather the $14,170 that Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman Kenneth Tomlinson secretly paid Fred Mann to monitor the political content of PBS and NPR shows.
Now, why would Mr. Tomlinson pay for information that any half-sentient viewer could track with TiVo? Why would he hire someone in Indiana? Why would he keep this contract a secret from his own board? Why, when a reporter exposed his secret, would he try to cover it up by falsely maintaining in a letter to an inquiring member of the Senate, Byron Dorgan, that another CPB executive had “approved and signed” the Mann contract when he had signed it himself? If there’s a news story that can be likened to the “third-rate burglary,” the canary in the coal mine that invited greater scrutiny of the Nixon administration’s darkest ambitions, this strange little sideshow could be it.
Mann’s report monitored the shows of Bill Moyers, Tavis Smiley and Diane Rehm.
Their guests were rated either L for liberal or C for conservative, and “anti-administration” was affixed to any segment raising questions about the Bush presidency. Thus was the conservative Republican Senator Chuck Hagel given the same L as Bill Clinton simply because he expressed doubts about Iraq in a discussion mainly devoted to praising Ronald Reagan. Three of The Washington Post’s star beat reporters (none of whom covers the White House or politics or writes opinion pieces) were similarly singled out simply for doing their job as journalists by asking questions about administration policies.
“It’s pretty scary stuff to judge media, particularly public media, by whether it’s pro or anti the president,” Senator Dorgan said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Not from this gang. Mr. Mann was hardly chosen by chance to assemble what smells like the rough draft of a blacklist. He long worked for a right-wing outfit called the National Journalism Center, whose director, M. Stanton Evans, is writing his own Ann Coulteresque book to ameliorate the reputation of Joe McCarthy. What we don’t know is whether the 50 pages handed over to Senator Dorgan is all there is to it, or how many other “monitors” may be out there compiling potential blacklists or Nixonian enemies lists on the taxpayers’ dime.
It turns out Mann is typical of CPB hires under Tomlinson. One of the two public ombudsmen Tomlinson recruited to monitor new broadcasts for PBS and NPR is William Schulz, “a former writer for the radio broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., a notorious Joe McCarthy loyalist.” Tomlinson also paid a $10,000 consulting fee to Brian Darling, the GOP operative who wrote the infamous Terri Schiavo memo instructing Republicans to milk the issue.
And now Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee has been installed as CPB president. As an assistant secretary of state Harrison publicly praised the department’s fake news segments promoting America’s success in Afghanistan and Iraq… some of which have actually been broadcast by local TV stations as real news. Tomlinson’s hires represent a concerted effort to directly control the content of public broadcasting.
Mr. Tomlinson has maintained that his goal at CPB is to strengthen public broadcasting by restoring “balance” and stamping out “liberal bias.” But Mr. Moyers left “Now” six months ago. Mr. Tomlinson’s real, not-so-hidden agenda is to enforce a conservative bias or, more specifically, a Bush bias. To this end, he has not only turned CPB into a full-service employment program for apparatchiks but also helped initiate “The Journal Editorial Report,” the only public broadcasting show ever devoted to a single newspaper’s editorial page, that of the zealously pro-Bush Wall Street Journal. Unlike Mr. Moyers’s “Now” – which routinely balanced its host’s liberalism with conservative guests like Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Paul Gigot and Cal Thomas – The Journal’s program does not include liberals of comparable stature.
THIS is all in keeping with Mr. Tomlinson’s long career as a professional propagandist. During the Reagan administration he ran Voice of America. Then he moved on to edit Reader’s Digest, where, according to Peter Canning’s 1996 history of the magazine, “American Dreamers,” he was rumored to be “a kind of ‘Manchurian Candidate’ ” because of the ensuing spike in pro-C.I.A. spin in Digest articles. Today Mr. Tomlinson is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal body that supervises all nonmilitary international United States propaganda outlets, Voice of America included. That the administration’s foremost propagandist would also be chairman of the board of CPB, the very organization meant to shield public broadcasting from government interference, is astonishing. But perhaps no more so than a White House press secretary month after month turning for softball questions to “Jeff Gannon,” a fake reporter for a fake news organization ultimately unmasked as a G.O.P. activist’s propaganda site.
The Bush administration and the Republican leadership are intent on turning the US into a one-party state, and nothing is more crucial to their totalitarian vision than complete and utter control of the broadcast news media, either directly, or through their corporate patrons. It may or may not be possible to save PBS from becoming the domestic equivalent of Voice of America, but the very fact that Republicans are attempting to subvert its independence in such a calculated manner is evidence that we can no longer rely on public broadcasting alone to provide balance to the corporate media.
What can we do? We must all come to public broadcasting’s defense, but we also need to create an alternative that is not vulnerable to similar manipulation. So again, I urge you to go to the Independent World Television News website, watch the introductory video, and please make a tax-deductible contribution. We need an independent media that cannot be controlled by corporate interests and government propagandists. And we need it now.