Three prominent Democratic senators have added their voices to a growing chorus of dismay about the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting under the leadership of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.
In advance of a meeting Monday of the CPB board, Democrats Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (N.J.) sent a letter to Tomlinson, the CPB chairman, expressing "serious concerns about reports of your interference in the programming decisions and governance" of the agency, which distributes federal funds to public broadcasters.
And in a separate letter to Tomlinson, Mary G.F. Bitterman, chairman of the board of the Public Broadcasting Service, noted widespread concern about "the damage being done to public broadcasting's independence by the application of partisan political pressure."
Both letters, sent yesterday, were prompted by news reports that Tomlinson and his fellow Republicans who dominate the CPB board are moving quickly to appoint Patricia de Stacy Harrison, a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, to be the corporation's new president and chief executive. Harrison, now a high-ranking State Department official who could not be reached for comment yesterday, has no previous experience in public broadcasting.
The board is expected to consider candidates for the top position on Monday in closed meetings. The public will be allowed to attend another session, on Tuesday, at the CPB offices downtown.
"Some board members indicate that [Tomlinson] has the votes to install her as president, and they have complained that the process has been truncated and hasn't been fair and open," Dorgan said yesterday in a telephone interview. He and Lautenberg sit on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the CPB.
Tomlinson, responding through a spokesman, Eben Peck, said: "We are in the process of examining a number of serious candidates for this position."
Bitterman's letter, which did not mention Harrison by name, said that the appointment of a "former national political party chair" could be "construed as showing contempt for the nonpartisanship in public broadcasting desired by the American people."
Complaints about Harrison's possible appointment come at a time when many prominent leaders within public broadcasting are expressing alarm at what they see as growing politicization at the CPB under Tomlinson's leadership. The CPB is a bipartisan agency designed to insulate public broadcasters from political pressure. Tomlinson has recently attacked what he perceives as liberal bias in PBS programming.
Tomlinson, appointed to the CPB board by President Bill Clinton and to the top job by President Bush, has made ideological balance on PBS and National Public Radio a central theme of his tenure at a time when broadcasters in the field are primarily occupied with possible large cuts in federal funding. The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a 25 percent cut in the CPB's budget for next year.
Some board members, and many public broadcasters, expect that Harrison will be made chief executive. The senators' letter called, "in the strongest possible terms," for Tomlinson "to delay the vote to allow time to address these important issues and ensure that the process for selection of the next president is characterized by open consultation and is conducted independent of political views, as it always has been in the past."
Ernest J. Wilson III, a CPB board member, said yesterday that he noted serious problems with the process, that it has been rushed and that choosing a controversial candidate would be bad for the health of the agency.
"I am concerned that in this kind of environment it might be better to wait for things to die down," he said, referring to the controversy generated by Tomlinson's accusations of bias in public broadcasting. Wilson cited studies that demonstrate wide public trust in the accuracy and fairness of public broadcasting.
Beth Courtney, who represents station managers on the CPB board, said that she will also bring petitions, letters and resolutions "from scores of my colleagues, from virtually every organization in public broadcasting," raising concerns about the hiring issue, funding woes and Tomlinson's accusations of bias. Courtney, who has been a station manager since 1986, says that some listeners and viewers have expressed doubts about supporting public broadcasting at a time when it appears to them that CPB is becoming an increasingly political body.
"People think CPB runs public broadcasting, [but] they don't," she said.
Tomlinson and CPB have relatively limited direct influence over programming on PBS and NPR. The agency provides less than 10 percent of PBS's annual budget and less than 1 percent of NPR's. But CPB is a vital source of funding for individual public radio and TV stations. And CPB provides crucial development money for a number of PBS shows, such as "Sesame Street," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and "Washington Week in Review."
Tomlinson had no comment on the assertions that his leadership has politicized the agency and that local broadcasters are suffering financially because of the controversy.