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May 17, 2005

Public radio woes

Western MA blogger and religious right expert Frederick Clarkson will be on NPR's excellent interview show "Fresh Air" tomorrow (Wednesday).  Locally, you can hear the show at 3 pm on WBUR (90.9 FM).  Congrats, Fred!

Which seems like an opportune moment to note a couple of truly depressing stories I've seen in the NYT over the last couple of weeks.  The latest, from yesterday's paper, reports that the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, together with its Bush-appointee-dominated board of directors, is preparing to direct grants to local radio stations away from news-related programming in favor of more music.  Supposedly this decision arose in part from the thoughtful research conducted by highly-qualified CPB board member Gay Hart Gaines - a Republican fundraiser, head of a Newt Gingrich PAC, and trustee of the Palm Beach (Fla.) Republican party (eek) - in which she apparently had "a conversation" with "a taxi driver" about his "listening habits."  Excellent.  The Corporation is also apparently preparing to "monitor" NPR's coverage of the Middle East for being too pro-Arab.  (Apparently this particular issue is at the behest of CPB board member Cheryl Halpern, another Republican fundraiser whose family "has business interests in Israel," according to the NYT.)

An earlier article reported on Tomlinson's efforts to right-wing-ify public television, including a particular vendetta that Tomlinson undertook against Bill Moyers and his "NOW" show (now hosted by David Brancaccio).  This included, hilariously, spending $10,000 on a consultant to keep track of Moyers' guests and their political leanings.  Now that's the kind of consulting gig I'd like to land - ten thou to watch TV.  (For the record, Moyers routinely invited conservatives as well as liberals onto his show, while the show that Tomlinson crammed down PBS's throat as "balance," which is hosted by the Wall St. Journal's ultraconservative Paul Gigot, is basically a right-wing echo chamber.)

I don't watch all that many public TV shows, but I listen to NPR all the time - it's one of my principal news sources.  And my understanding is that CPB doesn't provide all that much of NPR's budget directly, but that local stations, which have to pay NPR to air the nationally-produced shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, depend heavily on CPB grants.  So CPB's move to direct grants to local stations away from news and toward music, if it happens, is a real threat to NPR's programming.

What to do.  Well, NPR recently received a gigantic bequest of over $200 million from Joan Kroc, the widow of the guy who founded the McDonald's fast food empire.  I don't know the extent of the restrictions that Mrs. Kroc placed on that gift, but wouldn't it be great if NPR could use part of it to reduce the cost of its programming to local stations?  In the short term, that could reduce the pain that the increasingly-frequent public radio fundraisers inflict on listeners, and it could also perhaps reduce local stations' dependence on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  I'm not prepared to join in the calls to abolish the CPB, but reducing NPR's susceptibility to political hackery would be all to the good.

UPDATE (5/25): Pat Mitchell, the head of PBS, has responded to Tomlinson's charges of bias in a speech at the National Press Club.

Posted by David at 06:23 PM in National | Permalink


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This is a real issue, and it's hard to know what exactly can be done, except write letter and sign petitions...

I'd write more comments about this, but I'm off to write up my first weekly City Council report!

Posted by: Lynne | May 17, 2005 8:35:39 PM

The funny thing about this is if public radio/tv supporters are predominantly liberal, as I suspect, the conservatives at the top will end up pissing off the viewer/listenership. We *like* Bill Moyers, that's why we paid for him.

Maybe that's the point -- to drive a wedge between the stations and their audiences.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | May 17, 2005 10:30:18 PM

Maybe that's the point -- to drive a wedge between the stations and their audiences.

I think it's more crass than that. These guys believe (I think incorrectly) that NPR and PBS are liberal shills - the Fox News of the left, if you will - and they want to kill them.

Posted by: David | May 17, 2005 10:44:08 PM

I have heard left bias on NPR.
Has anyone else here ever heard a story or report or Connection broadcast they thought was biased in favor of the liberal position?

Posted by: The troll | May 18, 2005 12:06:58 PM

Every day Cokie Roberts and Juan Williams spout conservative bias on NPR. Juan Williams called the anniversary of the Iraq War the "anniversary of the War on Terror". Cokie is kind of a ridiculous know-nothing who parrots the administration line -- not sure if she is biased or lazy. And yes there is sometimes liberal bias, but...

By and large, NPR is just trying to be truthful, and the truth (right now) has a liberal bias (not always). The conservatives just call anything they don't like "liberal" -- it doesn't matter whether it is or not. They have spread this lie that NPR and the NYTimes are liberally biased -- the idea is to discredit the institutions that are capable of getting at the truth, so that whatever they say can be dismissed.

I worry more about the laziness bias in the press, though.

Posted by: Noho-missives | May 18, 2005 2:07:15 PM

you bare soo right about laziness factor. It is always safer and easier to write along the same lines as the "other guy" and depending on who you work for defines the "other guy".

Posted by: The troll | May 19, 2005 12:29:20 PM

.."are so right.."

Posted by: The troll | May 19, 2005 12:29:48 PM

It's ironic that Mr. Tomlinson is redirecting grants away from news and into music. More and more stations have had to move away from music in recent years, and into "format-driven" programming, (usually all-news-and-talk), simply because the music was not bringing in the well-educated listeners that could help pay the bills. I guess they're more interested in surviving at all than in fulfilling a mandate to serve the under-served with a diverse range of music. And the government (via the CPB) hasn't been helping out much. So now that stations have changed their formats and their priorities to favor the well-heeled, by moving into news and talk, the CPB chair doesn't like what he's hearing. Maybe he'd be hearing more music if the government had taken public broadcasting seriously years ago. Given the low percentage of station funding provided by government sources (8% in a study I read recently), his redirection isn't likely to cause much change in news reporting on NPR.

Posted by: Alan | May 20, 2005 12:29:45 AM

Once upon a time, public radio here in New England was nearly all music and cultural programming. Now many stations have shifted to constant news and constant talk, and in the process have become less diverse.

If the pendulum swings back for a while and some underserved category of programming gets a boost from CPR, it's OK by me.

Is there any chance the arrival of digital radio will create more channels?

Posted by: RC | May 20, 2005 2:39:48 AM

Typo: make that *CPB*. :-)

Posted by: RC | May 20, 2005 2:40:44 AM

no, but satellite radio does

Posted by: The troll | May 20, 2005 9:33:25 AM

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