The Magazine

Clearing the Airwaves

From the June 13, 2005 issue: Kenneth Tomlinson's attempt to save public broadcasting.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, FOR THE EDITORS
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Tomlinson may fail as a commissar, but he makes an excellent overseer for PBS and NPR. All along, he has said his goal is to protect public broadcasting--from the excesses of its own practitioners, if necessary--by resisting the leftward impulses that, unchecked, could endanger support from a politically diverse public. "It was my responsibility as CPB chairman to preserve public support for public broadcasting by doing something about the bias," he wrote recently. Rather than the mortal enemy his critics claim, Tomlinson may be public broadcasting's best friend. For in one sense he is simply doing what the manager of a bureaucratic institution is supposed to do: finding a strategy to keep his agency alive for the long-term.

In a larger sense, however, the abuse of Tomlinson points to something more ominous for public broadcasting: the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of maintaining government-funded media in a cultural landscape that is crisscrossed with political tripwires. We live in a remarkably touchy and thin-skinned time, and the controversy touched off by Tomlinson's mild reforms is as predictable as it is tedious. The statutory mandates for "balance and objectivity," not to mention for "excellence" and "quality," may be beyond enforcing in an era when the country's loudmouths, on the left and the right, refuse to agree on anything. (By the way, if PBS is so committed to "excellence," why does it still show those Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts?) But that's an argument for privatization--cutting public broadcasting loose from its government lifeline altogether. Public broadcasters should be careful what they wish for. If Ken Tomlinson fails today, more people will be arguing for privatization tomorrow.

--Andrew Ferguson, for the Editors