By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
A leading Republican donor and fundraiser was elected chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting yesterday, tightening conservative control over the agency that oversees National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service.
Cheryl F. Halpern, a New Jersey lawyer and real estate developer, won approval from the CPB's board. She succeeds a close board ally, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who stirred controversy earlier this year by contending that public broadcasting favors liberal views. Tomlinson's term as chairman had expired, but he will remain a member of the board.
The board also elected another conservative, Gay Hart Gaines, as its vice chairman. Gaines, an interior decorator by training, was a charter member and a chairman of GOPAC, a Republican fundraising group that then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used to engineer the GOP takeover of the House in 1994.
With the changes, conservatives with close ties to the Bush administration have assumed control of every important position at the agency, which distributes about $400 million in federal funds to noncommercial radio and TV stations and is supposed to act as a buffer against outside political influence.
Gaines succeeds the CPB's highest-ranking Democrat, Frank Cruz. Her election came after the agency's board, which is dominated by Republicans, rejected a bid for the vice chairmanship by its lone independent member, Beth Courtney.
In June, the board named former Republican National Committee co-chairman Patricia Harrison as the CPB's president and chief executive, angering Democrats.
"It's mind-boggling," Ernest J. Wilson II, one of two Democrats on the eight-member board, said in an interview. "They had an opportunity to send a bipartisan signal. They took the opportunity to send a very different kind of signal."
Halpern and her husband, Fred, have for years been financial supporters of Republican candidates, including President Bush and Republican Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Christopher Bond (Mo.). Mother Jones magazine ranked the Halperns among the nation's top 100 "hard" money donors (contributions made directly to candidates, not party organizations) during the 2004 election cycle, estimating their contributions at $81,800.
She has in the past been critical of NPR's reporting on the Middle East, particularly its coverage of the Israeli government. During her confirmation hearings for a seat on the CPB board in 2003, Halpern suggested that CPB members should have the authority to penalize public broadcasting journalists who air biased programs. When she was a member of the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, she said during her confirmation hearing, "We were able to remove physically somebody who had engaged in editorialization of the news."
In a brief interview yesterday, Halpern declined to express her personal views about bias in public broadcasting. But she said, "We will not be intervening in programming." Allegations of slanted programming, she said, will be referred to the CPB's ombudsmen for review.
In contrast to Tomlinson, CPB's two ombudsmen, Ken Bode and William Schulz, have found no evidence of liberal bias after five months on the job. Instead, they have mostly offered praise in the few reports each has issued since Tomlinson created their positions, which pay each of them $50,000 a year for part-time work. In a report issued Sept. 1, for example, Bode observed: "My own conclusion is no different than my perception of PBS and NPR when I accepted the position of ombudsman in April -- that considerations of fair and balanced is not as big a problem here as elsewhere. This is not Fox News."