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June 29, 2005

THE MAN WHO WOULD DESTROY PBS (Updated)

I wrote the following for the new issue of the L.A. Weekly, which hits the newsstands tomorrow:

Big_bird_narrowweb__200x313 Big Bird gave San Bernardino County Congressman Jerry Lewis (right) aJerry_lewis black eye last week. Lewis, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is the conservative obscurantist who has been leading the right-wing Republican effort to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which provides funding for PBS, NPR and their local affiliates -- and put it out of existence.

But, last Thursday, when the CPB appropriation came up for a vote on the floor of the House, the 25% cut in its budget Cpb_logoLewis had forced through his committee was restored, thanks to defections by Republicans afraid of public broadcasting’s popularity in the opinion polls -- 87 GOPers deserted their party leadership and voted to give back to CPB $100 million Lewis had snatched from it.

However, Lewis and the Republicans can still boast that they’ve managed to kill another $102.3 million in federal funding for public broadcasting. They’ve erased $79 million for PBS and its affiliates that funded both a satellite interconnection program to send content to local stations, and public TV stations' federally mandated conversion to digital transmission. And they’ve pulled the $23 million for TV from the “Ready To Read, Ready to Learn” program -- Laura Bush’s putative darling -- which provided money for PBS children’s programming. This Lewis-sponsored cut successfully eliminates funding for “Postcards from Buster,” the kids’ show that was the targetBuster_2  of anti-gay, censorious attacks by Bush’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Margaret Spellings, when it showed Buster visiting a Vermont family in which the parents were a lesbian couple. Thanks to Lewis, Buster -- a cartoon rabbit (right) -- won’t be sending any more postcards. Other popular children’s programs deprived of funding by Lewis include “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “Arthur,” and “Dragon Tales” (“Sesame Street,” which has other funding sources, isn’t as vulnerable as these other shows, which don’t).

And Lewis’s anti-PBS crusade is only part of the Republicans’ all-out effort to tame public broadcasting.

First, just who is Jerry Lewis? A member of Congress since 1978, Lewis represents the safest Republican seat in California, a sprawling California district (made even safer for the GOP in the last redistricting) that  includes the easternmost suburbs of the Greater Los Angeles area, as well as the fastest-growing communities in the Mojave Desert, and stretches all the way to the Nevada border. So entrenched is Lewis that the Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against him in the last two elections.

That’s hardly surprising, given Lewis’ record of vindictiveness against his political opponents. “Lewis (right) has a troubling, angry side, and an intimidating electoral style that can best be Rep_jerry_lewis described as embodying pre-Watergate ethics,” says a prominent Democratic activist and businessman in Lewis’ district who, fearing reprisals from Lewis, requested anonymity. “The last time we put up a serious candidate against Lewis, he really went after the guy, put private detectives on him paid out of campaign funds, went after our candidate’s clients and tried to ruin him, pressured one of our guy’s clients into suing him -- Lewis is a take-no-prisoners kind of fellow.”

Lewis is a longtime Congressional water-carrier for the military industrial complex, and for years has raked in big campaign bucks from its corporate behemoths, like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, United Technologies, Boeing, General Dynamics,Edwards_air_force_base  and General Atomics. Lewis’ congressional district is chock full of military bases -- including the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Command, Edwards Air Force Base, and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.

Another huge facility in Lewis’ district is the million-acre Army National Training Center for desert warfare. A middle school, built to serve the Center’s off-base military families, bears Lewis’ name, and is a charter school funded with what are called “special impact funds” which Lewis procured. The school was the centerpiece in another unsavory political scandal involving Lewis. A few years ago, a school board member in the Silver Valley United School District, which has jurisdiction over the middle school, discovered some $15 million in cost overruns at the Lewis school, as the Deseret Dispatch and the San Bernardino Sun reported at the time. A General Accounting Office investigation found dozens of irregularities, and a draft report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s officePentagon  sharply criticized the Lewis school’s management. Lewis’ reaction to all this? He had his cronies initiate a successful recall election against the obstreperous school board member who’d spotlighted the fraud, twisted arms to destroy the man’s business -- and, as the then-chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Defense appropriations, put pressure on the Pentagon to scrub its scandal-revealing draft report, which no longer officially exists (although a copy is in the possession of local Democrats.) Lewis is not a politician many have the guts to cross swords with.

Most worrisome to supporters of PBS, however, is Lewis’ reputation as a master of the backroom deal in the House-Senate conferences that revolve differences in the bills passed by the two chambers. The CPB appropriation now goes to the Senate -- where the Appropriations Committee chairman is ultraconservative Mississippi Thad_cochran Republican Senator Thad Cochran (left), a darling of the Christer right, which has been crusading against PBS. When Lewis and Cochran put their heads together after the Senate acts on this year’s appropriations bill, last Thursday’s moral victory for public broadcasting may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic one.

And that’s not all. On the same day as the House vote on its budget, the board of directors of CPB -- under the thumb of its hardline Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson -- voted to name as CPB’s new president and CEO a partisan political operative: Patricia deStacy Patricia_stacy_harris_1 Harrison (left), a co-chair of the Republican National Committee for four years (1997-2001), and a major fundraiser for George Bush, who rewarded her with a job in the State Department. She co-chaired Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's finance committee in 1996, when it accepted $80,000 in contributions from employees of Empire Sanitary Landfill, a waste management company later indicted for illegally funneling contributions to numerous federal campaigns and ordered to pay an $8 million fine, the largest Federal Election Commission fine in history. Harrison is a former lobbyist and p.r. woman with no public broadcasting experience, and was selected by passing over four more qualified finalists for the top CPB job. “Patricia Harrison’s selection as president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is an outrage -- her complete lack of experience and close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party represent a new low in public broadcasting history,” says Josh Silver, executive director of the media reform group Free Press, which has been central in fighting the GOP’s effort to bring public broadcasting to heel.

Tomlinson (below), a close associate Kenneth_tomlinsonof Karl Rove, hammered through the hiring of Harrison despite a huge public outcry at her pending appointment. For example, two weeks ago, the board of Iowa Public Broadcasting, in a letter endorsed by the Association of Public Television Stations, wrote to the CPB, saying of the widely-publicized news about the coming appointment of Harrison as CPB head: “We believe strongly that such an appointment would be in absolute contradiction to the concept of CPB as [a] buffer against political interference. It would call into question the motivations of everything we do, whether funded by CPB or not.”

The Harrison appointment is only the latest in a series of initiatives by Tomlinson -- a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest -- to stifle non-Republican thought at PBS. Former CPB board member Christy Carpenter told the New York Times that, under Tomlinson, there has been “an increasingly and disturbingly aggressive desire to be more involved [in runnng PBS] and to push programming in a more Pbs_logo conservative direction.”

Tomlin hired a Republican polling firm, The Tarrance Group (which had worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign) to take a poll on public broadcasting’s credibility. But he suppressed the poll’s findings when it revealed that PBS and NPR had an 80% favorable rating, and that a majority (55%) found PBS more “fair and balanced” than the Big Three broadcast networks, CNN, or Fox News. He brought in a Bush operative, the director of the White House Office of Global Communications, to oversee two ombudsmen he appointed to scrutinize PBS programming for non-Republican thinking. And Tomlinson hired a special consultant, Fred Mann, to monitor “bias” in Bill Moyers’ PBS news magazine “Now.” Mann created categories of Moyers’ guests, in his reports to Tomlinson, that had headings like “anti-Bush,” “anti-business,” and anti-Tom Delay.” Before being hired by Tomlinson at CPB, Mann worked for 20 years at the National Journalism Center, an organization founded by the American Conservative Union and M. Stanton Evans, a conservative columnist, and which counts among the alumni of its training programs Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter.

Karl_rove The assault on PBS “is being orchestrated by Karl Rove (left) and the White House, and it isn’t going to stop until they reshape public broadcasting to their liking,” says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Clearly, more dark days are still head for PBS.

UPDATE, June 30: The above article was, becaue of the L.A. Weekly's summer deadline, written six days before it was published. There have been several useful PBS-related pieces published elsewhere since. There was an original Michael Winship article for Common Dreams with more information on CPB chairman Tomlinson and his gumshoe Mann (including Tomlinson's involvement in blacklisting of a speakers' list at the US Information Agency in the '80s). NPR published on its website the complete Mann Report ordered by Tomlinson, which spied on not only Moyers but on Tavis Smiley and other public broadcasting hosts to root out the undesirables on their guest lists. Also, Alexander Cockburn, whom I used to consider a friend -- has taken to attacking me off and on these last years as, of all things, a lackey of the Democratic Party (which will surprise and amuse most people who've read my incessant critical attacks on the mediocrity, timidity, spinelessness, and enslavement to Corporate America of the Democratic leadership) -- but that doesn't stop me from recommending you read his hilarious dissection and sendup of the MacNeill-Lehrer News Hour on PBS, written for Harper's some years ago, and which Alex disinterred and republished in the June 30 issue of his newsletter Counterpunch. (I'm really not terribly troubled by Alex's spleen -- after all, last year Counterpunch attacked the Green Party, saying it "supports the perpetuation of the war and the corporate contamination of the American political system" -- an assertion even more hilarious than Alex's McNeill-Lehrer sendup. The Greens' crime was running its own presidential candidate instead of endorsing Nader, and abstaining from serious campaigning in swing states where doing so might have tipped those states to Bush.)

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