Public Broadcast Agency Picks GOP Appointee Over Protests

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

The agency that distributes federal funds to public radio and TV stations yesterday announced that it has hired a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee as its new chief executive, renewing charges of partisanship from public broadcasters and Democrats.

Patricia de Stacy Harrison, an assistant secretary of state, will take over as head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the congressionally chartered agency that this year will distribute almost $400 million in tax money to National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service and hundreds of noncommercial radio and TV stations.

Harrison, a former public relations executive who has no public broadcasting experience, was a co-chairman of the RNC from 1997 to 2001, and helped raise funds to elect party candidates, including President Bush, who appointed her to the State Department. She earlier was named to a post in the Commerce Department by President George H.W. Bush.

Harrison's new job was made considerably easier yesterday when the House voted to restore $100 million in CPB funding after the money had been cut by the Appropriations Committee. The House vote, on a bipartisan margin of 284 to 140, staved off a 25 percent cutback in the CPB's budget.

However, the House declined to restore about $102.4 million that underwrote the production of PBS children's programs such as "Arthur" and "Sesame Street," and funded satellite facilities technology and public TV stations' federally mandated conversion to digital transmission. If the Senate doesn't restore those funds, "the future of the Public Broadcasting Service [is] still at stake," said Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS.

Harrison was the candidate favored by the CPB's chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who has stirred controversy in recent months by asserting that public broadcasting displays a liberal bias in its news and public-affairs reporting. Tomlinson headed the three-person search committee that recruited Harrison. The eight-member CPB board passed over four other finalists in favor of Harrison. Two board members, Ernest J. Wilson III and Beth Courtney, both Democrats, voted against her.

The CPB board's vote was held in closed session Wednesday night and announced yesterday afternoon -- just as the House was voting on CPB's budget.

The funding uncertainties and Tomlinson's claims of bias underscore the tense climate Harrison will face when she takes over at CPB on July 5. Tomlinson's complaints have prompted a furious backlash from within public broadcasting, including calls for him to step down.

But even some opponents of Harrison's candidacy said her ties to influential Republicans could be an asset. "I think she's going to have a very difficult time and will have to work very hard to ensure that she's not seen as partisan, or as part of some subtle plot to undo public broadcasting," said Courtney, chief executive of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. At the same time, Courtney said that she told Harrison in a brief phone call, "I look forward to seeing you organize a Republicans-for-public-broadcasting rally soon."

Harrison was unavailable for comment yesterday. She has avoided all public statements since her name was first mentioned as a candidate two months ago. CPB officials said she would not comment until she begins the job. By law, she can be paid as much as $180,000 a year.

Harrison was first approached about the post 18 months ago but was unwilling to leave the State Department while Colin Powell was secretary of state, according to a CPB official who spoke on condition that his name not be published because it involved a personnel matter.

Harrison's appointment has perhaps more symbolic import than practical effect on public broadcasting. About 75 percent of all CPB funds are passed to individual stations under a grant formula, and 5 percent more goes to administrative costs. The agency can initiate and fund some programming, but by law it cannot force PBS, NPR or local stations to air any program. However, it can set broad programming goals and is a key advocate for funding from Congress.

In an interview yesterday, Tomlinson praised Harrison's administrative skills, saying she had worked to nearly double the budget of her State Department agency -- educational and cultural affairs -- in three years. He also said she would be a vigorous, nonpartisan advocate for public broadcasting: "As I've said before, the leaders of public broadcasting check their partisanship at the door. They work for public broadcasting. It's essential that we do nothing to drive Democrats away."

In her State Department role, Harrison has praised the work of the department's Office of Broadcasting Services, which in early 2002 began producing feature reports, some coordinated by the White House, that promoted the administration's arguments for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The reports were distributed free to domestic and international TV stations. In testimony before Congress last year, Harrison said the Bush administration regarded these "good news" segments as "powerful strategic tools" for swaying public opinion.

Harrison's selection was attacked by Democrats as the wrong choice for an agency that has usually been noncontroversial, if not always nonpartisan.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), noting that the CPB was created to insulate public broadcasters from government and politics, said in a statement that she was "troubled" by the decision to name "a partisan political operative." She questioned the integrity of the selection process, saying it was "made behind closed doors and out of the light of day."

Twenty Democratic House members last week called on Tomlinson to delay the search, saying it was hasty. (The CPB's previous CEO, Kathleen Cox, left in early April, after the board declined to renew her contract.) In a separate action this week, 16 Democratic senators, including Clinton, called on Tomlinson to resign, saying he had politicized the agency.

PBS's Mitchell said her organization "has had concerns about the appointment of a former political party chair" but added that it is "our hope and expectation that Ms. Harrison will execute her responsibilities with nonpartisan integrity."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company