A leading Republican donor who once suggested that public broadcasting journalists should be penalized for biased programs is the top candidate to succeed the controversial chairman at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to people at CPB and others in public broadcasting.
Cheryl F. Halpern, who was appointed to the CPB board by President Bush three years ago, is in line to replace Kenneth Y. Tomlinson as the head of the agency that distributes federal funds to noncommercial radio and TV stations and serves as a buffer between public broadcasting and politicians seeking to influence its news reporting and programming.
Tomlinson's second one-year term expires in September and he cannot be reappointed. He has stirred debate in recent months by contending that programs carried by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) favor liberal views. He has spearheaded an effort to address the issue, amid denials of bias by NPR and PBS officials.
Halpern, a lawyer and real-estate developer in New Jersey, is a close ally of Tomlinson's and is part of the five-member Republican majority that controls the CPB board (Democrats hold three seats, one of which is vacant). Halpern's association with Tomlinson stretches back more than a decade, to when both were on the board of the agency that oversees the federal government's international broadcasting services, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
Halpern and her husband, Fred, have been major financial supporters of Republican candidates for years. At one point during the 2004 elections, Mother Jones magazine ranked the Halperns among the nation's top 100 "hard" money donors (contributions made directly to candidates, not party organizations) and said they contributed a total of $81,800 to, among others, President Bush and Republican Sens. Trent Lott (Miss.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Christopher Bond (Mo.). The magazine said that 95 percent of their contributions during that election cycle went to Republicans.
At the Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to the CPB board in 2003, Halpern expressed agreement with Lott after he questioned the objectivity of PBS journalist and commentator Bill Moyers.
"There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability," she said at the hearing. She agreed with Lott that penalties were justified when balance fails, although she acknowledged that CPB rules prohibit interfering with programming decisions. Neither she nor Lott elaborated on what sort of penalties they favored.
She contrasted that lack of authority to her role on the federal Broadcast Board of Governors. "Going back to my BBG days, we were able to remove physically somebody who had engaged in editorialization of the news," she said, according to an account in Current, the public broadcasting newspaper.
Halpern's political activity and confirmation-hearing comments could make her elevation to chairman as controversial as CPB's recent hiring of its new president, Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. The appointment of Harrison last month touched off allegations of partisanship by public broadcasting executives, as well as calls by Democrats for Tomlinson's resignation and for an investigation by CPB's inspector general. The inspector general said this week that he has launched such a probe.
Halpern was unavailable for comment yesterday. CPB officials declined to provide contact information for her and efforts to reach her through two Washington think tanks she is associated with were unsuccessful.
People at CPB say another Republican board member, Gay Hart Gaines, would be the likely alternative if Halpern declines to pursue the chairmanship, which requires a vote of the agency's board. 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. Gingrich advocated eliminating the CPB when he became House speaker in 1995.
PBS officials declined to comment directly on Halpern's potential succession yesterday. But PBS President Pat Mitchell took an indirect shot at Republican-led efforts to address alleged bias by saying in a statement, "Our hope is that the next chairman of the CPB board, no matter who it is, will uphold the charter of the CPB, which is to support the independence of public broadcasting by distributing federal funds and protecting programming from the influences of any and all funding sources."
In a related matter, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to fund the CPB next year at about the same level as this year -- an action considered a victory by public radio and TV stations. The Senate panel restored about $111 million in funds that had been cut by the House when it voted on public broadcasting's budget last month.
The money is earmarked to help public TV stations convert their signals to digital broadcasts, pay for upgrading the satellite system used by public TV stations and fund a program that subsidizes the production of educational children's programs, including "Sesame Street" and "Arthur." The Senate legislation also restored the practice of advance funding, providing $400 million for CPB in fiscal 2008.
"We've really had a public referendum on the question of federal funding for public broadcasting, and Congress has responded," John Lawson, president and chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations, said in a statement. The association is public broadcasting's lobbying organization.
The bill next goes to the Senate floor. A conference committee of House and Senate members will meet in the fall to work out differences in their versions.