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Published: Friday, 11/18/2005

CPB needs a critic, not a censor

Kenneth Tomlinson shouldn't have been foisted off on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; his crude attempts at censorship won't be missed

FRIENDS of public broadcasting in America have no reason to mourn the departure of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, who resigned in the wake of a blistering report on his tenure as head of what is supposed to be a political "firewall" for public radio and television.

That is not to say that all board members or officials in public broadcasting must be cheerleaders for everything said and done on the stations that bring alternative programming to the vast but hardly varied panoply of commercial broadcasting.

Mr. Tomlinson, who was accused of violating the Public Broadcasting Act and the CPB's own regulations, apparently saw his role as one who would "balance" coverage of politics on public radio and television by monitoring "liberal" programs on his own authority and lobby to put on "conservative" programs, such as the Wall Street Journal's editorial board discussions at a reported cost of $5 million.

As Bill Moyers, producer of NOW, a program that angered Mr. Tomlinson, noted in a speech in St. Louis last May: "I confess to some puzzlement that the Wall Street Journal, which in the past editorialized to cut PBS off the public tap, is now being subsidized by American taxpayers. I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it."

Any government-supported media will sometimes run afoul of the officials who have some say in its funding; the situation is not substantially different in Britain or Canada, where public media have incurred the wrath of governments in power by airing views critical of their policies. The saving grace is that government critics can have their say, too.

Balance in public media is not achieved by hiring either "righties" or "lefties" on the air waves. Thoughtful dissenters often do not approach their analyses on the basis of a right-left continuum, but rather by broadcasting diverse views on the issues of the day. All too seldom does that happen, and Mr. Moyers' program on PBS was a fine example of that; NOW, aired on Friday nights not normally known for high-quality program content, is a shadow of its former self.

Mr. Tomlinson's departure will not make the task of public broadcasting any easier. The need for funds to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina may lead to efforts to reduce PBS funds. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting will have to walk a fine line between censorship and mindless objectivity. Fans of public radio especially want the news broadcast in context, and all 50 states benefit from it, including those that, as Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska noted, do not have communities large enough and wealthy enough to support major fund-raising.

Public broadcasting in the United States provides news and entertainment of a sort different from the usual commercial fare. That alone is enough to warrant its continuation, free of crude efforts at censorship such as Mr. Tomlinson tried to implement. Freedom cannot be sustained without variety in the media from which millions of Americans glean news and opinion so essential to maintaining a free society.



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