Less than a year after the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was forced to resign amid charges that he injected partisanship into the agency, President Bush has nominated to the nonprofit's board a television sitcom producer who has described himself as "thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues."
The nomination of Warren Bell, executive producer of ABC's "According to Jim" and a contributor to the online edition of the conservative National Review magazine, has puzzled and alarmed some public broadcasters, who fear he would revive the sharp political debate that engulfed the system last year.
Bell said he was surprised by his nomination but stressed that he had no intention of letting his personal political beliefs influence his role on the board. He asked skeptics to withhold judgment until they have a chance to hear about his goals for the post.
"I have every intention of working in a nonpartisan fashion with CPB," he said. "Anybody who spends 15 minutes talking to me will find that I am an eminently reasonable man."
But Bell's past comments have raised eyebrows among some Democrats who serve on the Senate Commerce Committee, which must approve his nomination. Questions about his qualifications are expected to dominate his confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.
"Based on what we know right now, this nominee doesn't appear to have the credentials and background one would expect for this position, which is in contrast to the other nominees," said California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a committee member. "I am also concerned about some of the partisan statements Mr. Bell has made over the years."
The disquiet over Bell's nomination comes on the heels of last year's controversy, triggered by then-board Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who worked aggressively to right what he saw as a liberal slant at PBS and NPR.
Tomlinson was ultimately forced to resign in November after an internal investigation by the corporation's inspector general found that his push for more conservative viewpoints on the air broke federal law and violated the agency's policies. The CPB, a private nonprofit responsible for distributing federal funds to local television and radio stations, is supposed to serve as a political buffer for public broadcasting.
Bush nominated Bell in late June to fill Tomlinson's former slot on the nine-member board (although he would not serve as chairman, a position that the board selects separately). After reading his postings on the National Review Online, public broadcasters grew worried that he has his own partisan agenda.
"We are definitely concerned about Warren Bell's nomination," said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. "After the damage caused by Ken Tomlinson's activities, the last thing we need on the CPB board is another ideologue of any stripe."
There's no question Bell has been outspoken in his political views. In frequent postings to the National Review Online during the last two years, he described himself as a "not-so-secret conservative" and lamented the liberalism of his colleagues in the entertainment industry.
In one particularly controversial blog entry last August, he expressed frustration at being asked by Disney executives to cast more minorities on "According to Jim."
(Bell said this week that he apologized for the posting at the time and that he "wholeheartedly" supports the company's diversity policy.)
Most of Bell's pieces for National Review Online have been jocular essays on topics as varied as Carol Burnett, his Maserati and condom commercials. But some contained partisan gibes.
"I could reach across the aisle and hug Nancy Pelosi, and I would, except this is a new shirt, and that sort of thing leaves a stain," he wrote in May 2005.
In a phone interview this week, Bell said the statement was a joke intended for the website's conservative readers. "If Congresswoman Pelosi would like a hug, it's there for her," he said.
"What I do for the National Review is speak my mind and generally try to be funny," Bell added. "My intent for my service with CPB is to ensure a strong healthy, vibrant public broadcasting system for everyone to be proud of. My politics can't enter into it. It's not a partisan position."
Many public broadcasting officials were perplexed last month when the White House tapped Bell to be on the board, along with two other expected nominees: former Arkansas Sen. David H. Pryor and Chris Boskin, a board member of San Francisco's KQED. Although he has worked for 17 years as a writer and producer for sitcoms such as "Life's Work," "Ellen" and "Coach," Bell, 43, does not have any public broadcasting experience.
"So far as we can tell, Mr. Bell only brings a history of questionable comments about women, minorities and the media, and no discernible relevant achievement, involvement or commitment to public broadcasting," said NPR spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. "It's curious to us that a nomination process that has forwarded such qualified candidates as Sen. Pryor and Ms. Boskin has also put forth Mr. Bell."
White House spokesman Blair Jones said Bush believes Bell is well-qualified for the post.
"Warren Bell has enjoyed a productive career in television," Jones said. "He has amassed a wealth of experience in the industry and his background makes him a natural choice for the position."
For his part, Bell said he does not know why he was chosen for the CPB board, a position he said he did not seek out, but speculated that he came to the attention of the White House because of his writings for the National Review.
He said he first learned of the nomination last fall, when a White House official e-mailed him to say that he was being considered.
"It took me by surprise, but I was deeply honored by it," he said. "I think what I bring is leadership and a knowledge and understanding of the media world that we live in. I see this as an opportunity to give back and serve the country and do something for public broadcasting, which has a long and honorable tradition."
He took a lighter tone last month in a blog posting after his nomination, writing: "I intend to open my confirmation hearing thusly: 'Ladies and Gentlemen of the Senate, three words: No. More. Elmo.' " He added: "Other than getting rid of high-pitched-talking red monsters, I have no agenda."
Bell said his comment was "completely facetious," but his flippant tenor offended some broadcasters.
In fact, Bell said he is a big supporter of programs like "Sesame Street," which one of his sons watched avidly when he was younger, and that he has been "blown away" by some recent PBS programs, including the "American Masters" series.
He said he'd like PBS to concentrate more on scripted programming, an area that he believes he could help, and on developing a stronger schedule throughout the week.
"PBS is the only American television network not bound by the strictures of commercialism," he said. "It ought to be the best TV we have."
Bell admitted that he has "limited" familiarity with NPR, adding that he usually listens to sports talk radio during his 20-minute commute to his Studio City office.
"It's something I have to work on," he said. "I expect to do an enormous amount of learning in the next few months."
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In his own words
Some of Warren Bell's postings on the National Review magazine website have been colorful, some have been controversial. Here are a few examples:
On his nomination, June 20
"I intend to open my confirmation hearing thusly: 'Ladies and Gentlemen of the Senate, three words: No. More. Elmo.' Seriously, I am deeply honored that the President has appointed me to this prestigious post and I am eager to serve my country in any way I can."
On his political beliefs, May 11, 2005
"The truth is, I was a left-wing wacko, a closet Communist, a card-carrying (or at least card-misplacing) member of the ACLU. Please forgive me, Mr. Buckley. I was so young."
"I am thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues. I support a woman's right to choose what movie we should see, but not that other one."
"I could reach across the aisle and hug Nancy Pelosi, and I would, except this is a new shirt, and that sort of thing leaves a stain."
On why he thinks men in the television industry
are funnier than women, Jan. 31, 2005
"The funniest woman of all time in any aspect of the business probably doesn't crack the top ten of all-time funniest people.... Young girls who want attention have other weapons -- they can scream, they can cry, they can grow breasts. They can be heartbreakingly beautiful and call me a nerd for imitating the Coneheads all the time. Learning to be funny would seem, for girls, to be more of a last resort."