Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Is It Illegal To Try To Correct Liberal Media Bias?

I don't believe in liberal conspiracies and cabals and whatnot. But anyone can see the utterly natural phenomenon of herd instinct in the news media. The national news media is liberal because the national news media, like the universities and government unions, is one of the institutions in which liberals tend to cluster. There's nothing underhanded about it, whatever one may think about the resulting societal effects.

And at this late date, let's have no more denial about the reality of liberal bias in the national news media. We're all aware of the studies, the Bernard Goldberg books, the political affiliation statistics, etc. Liberal bias in the MSM exists, and has existed for a long time. The media watchdog blogger The Ombudsgod put it like this:
A favorite pastime with me is listening to liberal journalists tell me they aren't liberal. I find it very similar to listening to a drunk explain how they are just social drinkers. In the end, the conversation can be closed simply by asking "who did you vote for in the last ten elections".
To pick only one example of this drift, the late Michael Harrington used to deploy his anti-capitalist tropes on All Things Considered. I remember thinking once, "Well, what could they air that can be further left than this? Noam Chomsky?" And sure enough, after Harrington left, for a while ATC gave the slot to Prof. Chomsky, the furthest left public intellectual in America. The only thing that's different now is that the rise of new grass-roots media has forced many MSM newsies to not only acknowledge their bias, but to make some show of dealing with it.

Now comes this report in the New York Times, about how Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting tried and failed to do just that. He was canned recently, and now he's being accused of breaking the law. Seems he wanted to steer the CPB (and by extension PBS and NPR) from its customary leftward tack, but his efforts failed:
The corporation's former chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was ousted from the board two weeks ago when it was presented in a closed session with the details of the report, has said he sought to enforce a provision of the Public Broadcasting Act meant to ensure objectivity and balance in programming.

But the report said that in the process, Mr. Tomlinson repeatedly crossed statutory boundaries that set up the corporation as a "heat shield" to protect public radio and television from political interference.

The report said he violated federal law by being heavily involved in getting more than $4 million for a program featuring the conservative editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal. It said he imposed a "political test" to recruit a new president. And it said his decision to hire Republican consultants to defeat legislation violated contracting rules.

Okay, fine; if he broke the rules he should be dealt with, and it seems he indeed has been. But reading the article further, it sounds to me that he was mostly guilty of trying to get a program hosted by some Wall Street Journal editorialists aired, and of some unspecified procedural novelties in hiring some Republican ombudsmen hired. (A seemingly more serious charge of payroll padding in an overseas division is relegated to the end of the article, which prevents me from dismissing this episode as just libs getting hysterical over conservative cooties in one of their bastions.)

And that's where the issue gets thorny. I'm afraid I can't provide anyone with the inside scoop on how public broadcasting works, but I presume that, when it was found in the 1960s, all these firewalls were set up to protect the new entity from becoming a government house organ. And on that score all's been well. The Jim Lehrer Report and All Things Considered are no more beholden to the government than any of the rest of the news media (from my non-paranoid conservative perspective).

But government influence and political influence are not the same thing. None of these institutional safeguards that Tomlinson is accused of breaching were designed to prevent a natural leftward drift in the staffing and programming, only governmental intrusion. So, if the people producing the CPB programming are overwhelmingly left-leaning, and if the governing officials are legally forbidden from muscling in on the editorial side of things, then presto: Reform of liberal bias in public broadcasting is impossible. The next chief will probably be less aggressive in trying to diversify the programming content, and viewership may well fall. It'll be interesting to see how the next pledge drive plays out a few months down the road, if this story has legs.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with the pledge drives is twofold. First, most NPR listeners are on the left of American politics. Second, it is like a magician doing a trick - you focus on that part of CPB funding that is not from the government, while they nab another $400 million a year... for what purpose? Why is government funding needed?

    My most recent comments about this are sort of a rehash of an older post (http://www.atlasblogged.com/archives/2005/07/funding_pbs_and.php) but Tomlinson was by no means the only one in public broadcasting who thought that pushing his own politics was the right way to spend our tax dollars.


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