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No liberal bias at PBS, responds network president

Times Staff Writer

PBS President Pat Mitchell maintained Tuesday that the taxpayer-supported network is independent and free of political bias, rejecting Republican arguments that there is a need for more conservative programming to balance the content of public television.

In her first public response to criticism that PBS suffers from a liberal reputation, Mitchell cited public polls that have repeatedly found that a majority of Americans view the network as objective and fair. She vowed to shrug off any attempts at political influence from either side of the spectrum.

“Our responsibility is to tell the truth, no matter what the consequences,” she said in a lunchtime address to the National Press Club. “And from time to time, it does lead people to question our motives, even suggest an agenda.”

But “PBS does not belong to any single constituency, no one political party, no activist group, no foundation, no funder, no agenda of any kind,” Mitchell added. “Our editorial standards ensure this, and public opinion polls verify it.”

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Mitchell’s speech comes at a tumultuous time for public broadcasting and reflects her efforts to quell fears among station executives about recent efforts to promote more conservative perspectives in PBS programming.

Her address amounted to a rebuttal to recent remarks by Kenneth Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit that is charged with distributing federal funds to public television and radio stations.

The CPB chairman has made no secret of the fact that he believes the Public Broadcasting Service has a liberal reputation. And his actions have sparked a flurry of protests from liberal advocacy and public interest groups, who are gathering petitions calling for his resignation and asking CPB to stay out of programming decisions.

Last year, he quietly hired an outside consultant to monitor the political leanings of guests on “Now With Bill Moyers” to bolster his case.

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In recent months, Tomlinson has taken a series of steps he has said are intended to expand the network’s appeal, from promoting shows featuring conservative commentators such as Paul Gigot and Tucker Carlson, to establishing a new ombudsman office to evaluate coverage -- a move that caught PBS officials off-guard.

Tomlinson also tapped Mary Catherine Andrews, President Bush’s former director of the White House Office of Global Communications, as a senior advisor.

On Tuesday, Mitchell declined to answer questions about whether she believes Tomlinson, an appointee of President Clinton, is trying to remake PBS according to his political leanings.

“I really don’t feel it’s my place to judge the motivations of someone,” she said, adding that “the facts don’t support the case he makes,” referring to polling data.

The PBS president noted that public broadcasting has fielded political pressure since its inception in the late 1960s.

“For just as many years, PBS has stood steadfastly resolved not to give into those pressures, and that resolve is rock-solid today,” she said.

Now, Mitchell said, public broadcasting officials should focus their energies on finding new streams of revenue for PBS, which is facing a 25% cut in federal funding next year.

“We cannot afford -- quite literally -- to engage in destructive allegations based on personal perceptions clearly not shared by ... the growing number of viewers of PBS,” she said.

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A CPB spokesman said Tuesday that Tomlinson had no comment on Mitchell’s speech.

But in an interview with The Times earlier this month, Tomlinson rejected claims that the Bush administration is behind his actions and insisted that he does not want to undermine public broadcasting. He said he is seeking to broaden the reach of PBS because there is a “widespread perception among politically sophisticated people” that the network slants to the left.

However, polls have repeatedly found that the majority of Americans view public broadcasting as impartial and balanced. One poll commissioned by CPB in the summer of 2003 found that just 21% of viewers believe PBS has a liberal bias and 12% believe it has a conservative slant.

Tomlinson has discounted those findings, citing the drop in viewers over the last decade as a sign of public discontent with PBS.

“We clearly have problems with public television in that people are voting with their clickers,” he told The Times earlier this month.

But the political debate around public television is unlikely to die down anytime soon.

Kenneth A. Konz, the CPB’s inspector general, is reviewing Tomlinson’s activities after Democratic Reps. David R. Obey of Wisconsin and John D. Dingell of Michigan demanded an investigation, suggesting that he may have broken a federal law that limits the corporation’s role in programming.

Moyers, who has received the brunt of Tomlinson’s criticism, has also spoken out. In a speech to a media reform conference in St. Louis earlier this month, the longtime liberal commentator, who left “Now” in December, compared the CPB chairman to Richard Nixon, who tried to cut federal funding for PBS.

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