We all know, of course, that the tax-exempt, partly taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting maintains a scrupulous neutrality when it comes to partisan politics. Ditto for the hundreds of public radio and television stations operating under its aegis: they, too, are models of political even-handedness. Otherwise they would be in violation of the law, which prohibits such tax-exempt corporations from intervening in political campaigns. We also know, of course, that any rumors to the contrary—for example, that these public entities consistently display a distinct preference for Democratic over Republican candidates—are just that: rumors put forth by mean-spirited enemies of these great benefactors of public intelligence and taste.
We are at something of a loss, therefore, to explain the September 10 front-page story in The Boston Globe revealing that the president of PBS had resigned in the wake of an inspector general’s report concluding that member stations had shared donor lists almost exclusively with Democratic organizations. PBS officials said that Ervin S. Duggan’s resignation after five years as president was completely unrelated to the list-swapping scandal. We are reassured by that news. Otherwise we might have thought that Mr. Duggan had been cast as the fall guy to contain another campaign-finance scandal.
We remain puzzled, however, by certain aspects of the Globe’s report. The list-swapping scandal, which began last May, led to a Congressional subcommittee investigation in July. According to the Globe, that investigation revealed that WGBH in Boston— one of the largest and most prestigious of PBS stations—“had swapped its lists with the Democratic Party more often than it initially admitted and that the list-swapping practice was going on at public television stations across the country.” Even more surprising was the revelation that the few groups with Republican-sounding names (e.g., “Country Club Republicans,” “Pataki”) involved in the list-swapping turned out to be completely unconnected to the Republican Party.
We frankly don’t know what to think. The Media Research Center cites a report claiming that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has acknowledged that
CPB and PBS executives provided inaccurate testimony to a congressional panel… . Industry officials told the House telecommunications subcommittee that PBS member stations swapped donor lists with the “Country Club Republicans,” but CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz says no such group exists. He said list brokers came up with the moniker after assembling names of high-powered Republican donors. Meanwhile, Mr. Konz is suspicious about the industry’s claim that some stations exchanged lists with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. Industry officials had cited swaps with those Republican entities as evidence that public TV stations were not being partisan when they exchanged lists with Democratic groups. At the hearing, panel Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., had warned industry officials there would be repercussions if their testimony was wrong or misrepresented the facts.
Doubtless we will all be able to learn more about this soon on one of those famously non-partisan PBS shows—on “Frontline,” for example, a PBS show that ran several hard-hitting stories about officials lying to Congress during the Reagan-Bush years. Who can doubt that the producers will relish this opportunity to exhibit their even-handedness? In the meantime, we can’t helping recalling Sir Walter Scott’s famous ditty: “O what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive!”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 2, on page 3
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