All Is Not Well on Sesame Street

Despite the Republican congressional leadership's best efforts to the contrary, funding has been restored for public broadcasting. But there is still much damage to undo and ill winds to deflect from our national debate on the future of public media.

First and foremost, the public must understand that Republican attacks on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and NPR (National Public Radio) have been two-pronged: one on funding, the other on governance, and both potentially devastating. But it is the governance issue that persists and, in the long term, could be the most ruinous for our public media.

This past June my worst fears came true when veteran Republican fund raiser and current Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson appointed Patricia Harrison, former Republican National Committee Chair and conservative ideologue, as president of the CPB. The moment I caught wind of this, I wrote a letter signed by 20 of my colleagues calling for an immediate investigation, which was followed shortly thereafter with a letter signed by a number of senators calling for Tomlinson's resignation.

The appointment of Harrison fueled public outrage at Republican attempts to highjack and defund PBS. People from all shades of the political spectrum rallied around Big Bird and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Ultimately, Republicans who tried to destroy PBS were defeated at the hands of some of their own comrades. Funding was restored and all seemed cheerful on Sesame Street.

But saving Big Bird and Clifford is not enough.

Even as investigations continue and the farce of Tomlinson's secretive maneuverings come to light -- his stealth study of PBS content, his hidden polls, his attempts to hire political operatives as fake ombudsmen, and his personal crusade for conservative programming, to name a few -- we must call for more substantive changes than simply restoring lost funds. Beyond investigations, we must lay out a program for a new governance of PBS, one that is safely shielded from partisan hatchets.

At the very least, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) presidential selection processes needs to be made more transparent and not based on ideological litmus tests. Greater transparency at and depoliticization of the CPB are all the more imperative when we recall that the CPB was created by the framers of public broadcasting as a buffer between the often partisan world of politics and the independence of the fourth estate.

CPB President Patricia Harrison's selection process reeked of cronyism and back-room deals that took the public out of public media. We must demand more accountability from the CPB leadership to other CPB board members as well as the general public. In short, we need to depoliticize the CPB.

Last week, Tomlinson, in a long-anticipated move, replaced himself with his ideological clone, Cheryl Halpern. Halpern's appointment raises a number of concerns. She and her husband are leading cash dispensers for Republican candidates. Mother Jones magazine ranked them among the top 100 hard money donors for the 2004 election cycle. During a Senate hearing, Halpern suggested that biased reporters -- in her view, investigative journalists like Bill Moyers -- should be penalized, despite the fact that CPB rules forbid direct interference with programming decisions. Halpern even implied that the physical removal of editorializing journalists is a legitimate practice.

Given Halpern's partisan pedigree and alarming comments, we are faced with troubling questions. Will Halpern refrain from carrying out Tomlinson's crusade to steer PBS content even more rightward? Will Halpern forswear the backstage machinations and secretive attacks on CPB governance? Or will she continue the partisan takeover begun by Tomlinson?

The answers to these questions are probably not the answers that long-time supporters of public broadcasting want to hear. Nevertheless, we must all remain vigilant towards any sign of PBS and NPR succumbing to partisan political pressure, either from the left or the right.

Big Bird might be safe for now. Our public media are not.