CPB Looks Under Bed, Finds No Dust Balls, Hires New Maid

The other day, we wrote about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s new acting president, Ken Ferree, and his apparent cluelessness about a couple of little fiefdoms — NPR and PBS — that fall under his charge.

While Ferree is getting up to speed on just what it is that NPR and PBS do, the CPB is pushing forward with its purported plans to overhaul public broadcasting’s programming to make it more “fair” and “balanced.” But there’s a new wrinkle that calls into question the CPB’s reasoning: According to two public opinion studies commissioned by CPB itself, Americans appear to like public broadcasting just the way it is.

On Wednesday, the Center for Digital Democracy reported that two unreleased surveys conducted for the CPB by polling firms Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry Associates in 2002 and 2003 have neither been officially released to the press nor shared with PBS and NPR. (Some of their findings were included in CPB’s annual report to Congress, but the original reports remain under wraps — CJR Daily was provided a copy by the Center.) The surveys were followed by four focus groups to further explore the issue of bias.

Despite the bellyaching coming from some conservatives about liberalism run amok in public broadcasting, both surveys came to the same conclusion: The majority of the U.S. adult population doesn’t see any real bias in public broadcasting. But CPB apparently remains unconvinced. According to an article published in the Washington Post last week:

CPB this month [April] appointed a pair of veteran journalists to review public TV and radio programming for evidence of bias, the first time in CPB’s 38-year history that it has established such positions. PBS officials were unaware that the corporation intended to review its news and public affairs programs, such as “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and “Frontline,” until the appointments were publicly announced.

As for those polls — were the results so close that the CPB thought that there was some question as to what Americans really think? Not quite. The July 2003 poll of 1,008 adults found that public broadcasting garnered an 80 percent “favorable” rating, a 10 percent “unfavorable” rating and a 10 percent “unsure.” More than half surveyed felt that PBS’s news programming was more trustworthy than news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN. A full 55 percent said that PBS programming was “fair and balanced,” while a whopping 79 percent said the same about NPR. As far as reporting the Iraq war — that great bellweather of bias in reporting — 26 percent felt that PBS’s reporting was fair, 7 percent felt it was “slanted” and 63 percent had “no opinion.” (NPR’s numbers are about the same.)

This, of course, raises a question — is CPB’s appointment of two ombudsmen to scour public broadcasting’s content for bias little more than the corporation’s new leadership fishing for results that confirm its own dark suspicions?

Even in the four focus groups conducted after the polling (made up specifically of people who already “believed that news and information programming on PBS and/or NPR has a liberal bias”) most participants “could not cite specific examples of bias,” even though they claimed to be able to “recognize bias and … factor it into their own analysis.”

Tarrance and Lake write that “There is a core segment of the population that will always contend that all news media is biased no matter what.” In other words, many people are simply “jumping on the bandwagon” and declaring PBS and/or NPR biased only because they believe all news media are biased, “and they do not distinguish between specific news organizations and the news media in general.”

Yet CPB continues to prospect for evidence of bias in order to impose programming changes on a model that appears to be working quite well. But now, a pushback has begun. Yesterday, the media activist group Free Press teamed with the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America to release a report (PDF), “A New Standard: Building a Public Broadcasting System that Deserves Public Support,” which calls for “a public ascertainment process” to take place before lawmakers set standards for PBS and other public broadcasters.

Here we have all the elements that go into a juicy news story — government overreach, suppressing evidence, cooking the books, a disdain for the public will, and a group of citizen organizations fighting back. Yet news coverage of this story has been missing in action.

To our mind, journalistic sins of omission are just as grave as those of commission, and this one is a doozie. Granted, public broadcasting isn’t the sexiest topic out there, but it is an important one, and if we let a small group of government employees hijack the people’s airwaves, smart, independent journalism everywhere will be the worse for it.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.