A former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee is the leading candidate to take over the agency that funds public broadcasting, sparking new concerns among broadcasters about conservative influence over National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service programming.
Patricia de Stacy Harrison, a high-ranking official at the State Department, is one of two candidates for the top job at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is the favored candidate of the CPB's chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, according to people close to the search. The CPB is a congressionally chartered agency that directs taxpayer funds to PBS, NPR and hundreds of radio and TV stations.
Harrison's candidacy comes at a time when Tomlinson has stirred controversy by attacking PBS as having a liberal bias in its programs. Tomlinson, a longtime Republican, has advocated more balance on PBS's schedule and has supported using CPB funds to produce news-discussion programs that take a conservative point of view. Critics, including veteran PBS newsman and commentator Bill Moyers, have said Tomlinson is trying to use CPB's power to inject Republican ideology into PBS and National Public Radio programs.
Although the agency has hired a search firm to find other candidates for the job, the only other known candidate is Ken Ferree, who has been CPB's interim chief executive since April. Several high-ranking officials within public broadcasting said they expect the agency's eight-member board -- which is dominated by Republicans -- to decide on a new chief executive at the board's next meeting, scheduled for June 20-21.
Neither Harrison nor Ferree returned calls seeking comment. Tomlinson yesterday said, "We appreciate the concerns expressed from within the public broadcasting community." But he added, in an indirect defense of Harrison's candidacy, "We also appreciate the high regard some of our candidates have in official Washington."
Harrison, who has been assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs since October 2001, did not return calls seeking comment. She has been an entrepreneur (she founded with her husband and later sold a Washington lobbying and public relations firm, E. Bruce Harrison Co., that specialized in representing companies with environmental issues), but has no experience in public broadcasting.
Harrison has been appointed to jobs in the State and Commerce departments by President George H.W. Bush and the current President Bush. She was co-chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 until January 2001, helping to raise money for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.
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 background in political advocacy has alarmed some public broadcasters, who are concerned that she would compromise CPB's traditional role as a "heat shield" that protects public broadcasting from political pressure by Congress and the White House.
In a letter to CPB's board of directors last month, the board of Iowa Public Broadcasting did not mention Harrison by name but wrote that hiring a "partisan political activist" as CPB president "would be in absolute contradiction to the concept of CPB as a buffer. It would call into question the motivations of everything we do, whether funded by CPB or not."
The Iowa board's letter was endorsed Tuesday by the Association of Public Television Stations, a Washington lobbying group that represents public stations across the country. The group's board of trustees told Tomlinson in a letter: "The controversy surrounding issues of editorial integrity is already proving damaging to public broadcasting in terms of a negative impact on membership and congressional support. More than at other times, the next president of CPB should exhibit the highest qualifications for the position."
In an interview, John Lawson, APTS president and chief executive, said, "I don't think anyone questions [Harrison's] credentials. What we're saying is that it's not in the best interest of public broadcasting to put someone in that position who has a history of activism on behalf of any political party. We'd be saying the same thing if she was chairman of the Democratic National Committee."
CPB disburses federal tax funds (about $387 million this year) to individual public stations, NPR and PBS. CPB money accounts for about 15 percent of public broadcasting's revenue (and less than 10 percent and 1 percent of PBS's and NPR's budgets, respectively). The nonprofit corporation has little direct control over most of those funds, which are dispensed as automatic grants to stations meeting certain criteria, but it does retain some discretion over program development and funding.