In a scathing report issued on September 30, the Government Accountability Office's investigators said the Bush Administration had broken the law by using taxpayer dollars to disseminate "covert propaganda" in the United States.
The case in question involves the buying of favorable news coverage of the White House's education policies in the form of payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and the hiring of a PR firm to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party. (The GAO's ruling should lead the mainstream media to broaden its investigation: What other reporters and media outlets are on the government's payroll?)
But this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's now clear that the Bush Administration represents a broad threat to a free and fair media. The bribing of journalists to report "friendly" news has to be put in the context of a decades-long effort by the right and its corporate allies to undermine journalists' ability to report fairly on power and its abuse--whether through consolidation, cutbacks in news budgets or by attaching the label "liberal bias" to even the most routine forms of news-gathering and reportage.
Up next in the scandals of Bush crony journalism: In early November, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Inspector General is scheduled to release his report on former CPB chair Kenneth Tomlinson's payments to a conservative consultant to rate the political leanings (and loyalties) of PBS guests. IG Kenneth Konz said last month that Tomlinson may have violated internal rules, and that his final report could recommend that Tomlinson be barred from serving as director. (Tomlinson recently stepped down as CPB's Chair, to be replaced by Cheryl Halpern, a former GOP fundraiser and donor.)
At a charged Senate hearing last July, Tomlinson rebuffed questions about the $5 million in taxpayer and viewer-donated resources he'd devoted to a show starring the far-right ideologues of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. As Nation columnist Eric Alterman wrote in September 2004, "Short of turning the broadcast day over to Rush Limbaugh or Richard Mellon Scaife, it's difficult to imagine a more calculated effort to undermine PBS's intended mission of providing alternative programming than this subsidy to a wealthy, conservative corporation to produce yet another right-wing cable chat show." (Kudos to groups like Free Press, Common Cause, FAIR, Media Matters and the Center for Digital Democracy for exposing CPB's pressure on PBS to conform to right-wing editorial perspectives and calling for broad reform and transparency.)
At the same hearing, Democratic Senators Daniel Inouye and Richard Durbin pointedly questioned Tomlinson about using public money to monitor the Moyers program and promote The Journal Editorial Report. At one point, Durbin pointedly asked Tomlinson: "Are you going to provide $5 million for The Nation magazine?"
That question--at a time when Moyers has left NOW, and when the right continues to dominate not only commercial TV but also our public broadcasting outlets--leads me to send an open letter to CPB's board.
While the core issue remains restructuring CPB's role, we know that will take many years--and a Democratic majority in at least one house of Congress. Right now, I urge all who believe in the importance of a vigilant, independent press to click here to e-mail the CPB's Board (or call 202-879-9600 or mail to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 401 Ninth Street, NW Washington, DC 20004-2129) and urge it to live up to the CPB's stated mandate of restoring real balance to PBS's airwaves by taking Durbin up on his suggestion and providing funding to develop a real roster of balanced and hard-hitting programming--spearheaded by a weekly Nation program.
Dear CPB Board,
As you may recall from the testimony in the Senate on July 11, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois inquired as to whether CPB had any immediate plans "to provide $5 million for The Nation magazine." We are writing in the hopes of taking you up on what we think was a fine idea on Senator Durbin's part.
We're serious. With the departure of Bill Moyers from NOW, PBS has no outspoken liberals at all offering commentary. And yet the Wall Street Journal editorial page, owned by the billion-dollar Dow Jones Corporation, receives a $5 million taxpayer subsidy from CPB to offer its editors' opinions on a weekly basis with absolutely no input from the other side. While Now continues to operate, it does so exclusively as a news and interview show, with only half the weekly air-time it previously received.
Because we have frequently heard former CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson and others speak of the need to offer "balance" to PBS viewers, we think a show featuring Nation editors, columnists, writers and invited guests would provide just the balance a far-right institution like the Wall Street Journal editorial board invites. Unlike most voices in the mainstream media, The Nation has been consistently skeptical of George W. Bush's foreign policy, his tax cuts, his social agenda, indeed, even his alleged "victory" in the 2000 election. Surely PBS viewers cannot be said to benefit when they hear only one side of the story. And yet since CPB began subsidizing the Wall Street Journal's show, that is all they get.
Many people associated with The Nation are seasoned television performers. We would be happy to work with you and your staff in creating a show that underserved viewers will find interesting, enlightening and entertaining, and will help CPB meet its stated mandate of restoring a much desired sense of "balance" to PBS, so that not only conservative opinions are the ones to which viewers are treated on a weekly basis.
We eagerly await your response.
Katrina vanden Heuvel,
Editor, The Nation