Testimony of Tim Graham Director of
Media Analysis, Media Research Center --
House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on
Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection
July 20, 1999
For the last twelve years, the Media Research Center has studied the problem of liberal bias in the national media. We have over 16,000 videotapes of television news programming and provide the public with evidence when the national networks have failed to live up to their promises of objectivity and balance. Part of that effort has involved documenting the failure of PBS and NPR news and public-affairs programs to live up to their promises. But unlike the other television networks, PBS is instructed by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to provide objectivity and balance in "all programming of a controversial nature." The other networks don't break the spirit of this law when they use their own airwaves to favor one political party over another.
We're not here to debate whether the Democrats could offer counter-examples to the hundreds of examples of unfairness to conservatives. Has NPR's Nina Totenberg ever done to Democratic Supreme Court nominees what she did to Douglas Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas? Has WGBH's "Frontline" series ever suggested that a Democratic administration conducted an illegal foreign policy worthy of the suggestive title 'High Crimes and Misdemeanors'? Why did PBS offer live testimony of hearings on Watergate and Iran-Contra and not the Senate's 1997 hearings of the DNC's Chinese-fundraising scandal?
We're not here to debate whether the Democrats could offer many Republican names at the top of PBS or NPR, which have resembled a revolving door of former Democratic aides, from Ervin Duggan and Delano Lewis to Douglas Bennet and Frank Mankiewicz. Contrary to the assertions of congressional staff, this left-leaning image of PBS and NPR is not a "myth," but an image that is both well-earned and well-documented.
The newest revelations about public broadcasting have only deepened the public image of a PBS-DNC complex. These direct-mail deals aren't just an outrage to conservative Americans, but to every American who expects public broadcasting to be a public trust, free of partisan manipulation. These revelations expose the systemic failure of congressional and CPB oversight of public broadcasting. How else can we explain that PBS stations have been swapping direct-mail names with Democratic fundraisers for 20 years and it's an entirely new topic?
This erupting PBS-DNC fundraising scandal demonstrates what can happen when Congress and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have done very little to lift the veil of privacy that supposedly "public" stations draw around their own financial arrangements. Behind our backs, PBS stations have constructed an indirect form of taxpayer-financed campaigns, at least for the Democrats. But the lack of oversight means the taxpayer is asked to put up and shut up.
If it hadn't been for a four-year-old fan of "Barney and Friends" who was asked to donate to the Democrats, this committee would be adding a half-billion dollars to the CPB budget. This committee's efforts to authorize a substantial increase should be immediately halted until a full-scale investigation can take place. This year's forward appropriation should be put on hold until Congress is satisfied that these list-swapping practices with Democrats and other liberal interest groups have been fully investigated, exposed, and halted.
While CPB should be expected to probe this matter, Congress should not count on CPB alone for results. In its confused standing as a "private corporation" that distributes billions of tax dollars, CPB does not answer to the Freedom of Information Act. In its current form, CPB sees itself as a "heat shield"-protecting the public broadcasting system from the scrutiny of Congress or the people it represents.
Even the most extreme cases of outrageous content have drawn only inaction from CPB. When Los Angeles public station KPFK for two years in a row broadcast an "Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend" which viciously attacked Jews, CPB President Richard Carlson declined to actually monitor on-air content: "I believe the problems that would be created by doing this are limitless." I would expect their investigators of station fundraising practices to have the same reluctance to jeopardize the stations' standing before congressional appropriators.
In recent days, we've heard of the possibility that public station list-swapping with political organizations would be explicitly outlawed by Congress. But if Congress employs that remedy, what will be the punishment?
The public outrage at these practices should not be disposed through sterile statutory language with no more legal force than the original mandate for balance in the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. PBS stations clearly have no fear of Congress. Boston station WGBH was swapping lists with the Democratic National Committee at the same time that
House Speaker Newt Gingrich had pledged to zero out taxpayer funding. When this new story first came to light, WGBH officials explicitly lied to Congress and the media by citing the list-swapping not as a five-year practice, but as a one-time "misunderstanding." Congress must explicitly condemn individual stations for these practices and punish them by seeking to reduce or eliminate their federal funding.
We believe that public broadcasting showcases the worst traits of a public-private enterprise. It mixes billions in public funding with private-sector notions of financial privacy. The recent list-swaps underline yet another way in which public stations are used for private gain. The proper congressional response should be vigorous efforts to insure that public broadcasting is not just a partisan tool, being secretly used as a tax-funded political organizing base.
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