KPBS general manager Doug Myrland is nothing if not diplomatic. His words are precise and chosen carefully; he doesn't seem prone to hyperbole. The affable local public television and radio administrator told CityBeat this week that he often has to ask critics of KPBS to give the station the benefit of the doubt, so it's only neighborly for him to extend the same courtesy to Kenneth Tomlinson.
Tomlinson is the President Bush-appointed chairman of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) who thinks the Public Broadcasting Service leans too far to the left and National Public Radio is too biased against Israel, despite public-opinion polls that tell a different story.
“I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt to this point,” Myrland said. “I think his beliefs are sincere. I think he probably sincerely believes that there are ways that public broadcasting could improve its journalism and its balance.” But Myrland says Tomlinson could be going about his business in a “more graceful way.”
Myrland pointed out that Tomlinson had an opportunity to trumpet polling data that shows people generally think public broadcasting is unbiased and trustworthy-more so than the mainstream commercial broadcast media-but he didn't seize it. “I think the most disappointing thing to me as a public broadcaster was to find out that CPB commissioned that research and then hid it away. I think that's very tacky and kind of worrisome, especially since it was so favorable to public broadcasting.”
Myrland supports Bill Moyers' assertion that the Moyers'-created NOW program is more balanced than the Tomlinson-backed Journal Editorial Report, the show featuring the editors of the conservative Wall Street Journal (which does not air on KPBS).
Nevertheless, Myrland stops short of doing what “plenty of people” have done: call Tomlinson's crusade a high-level Republican conspiracy against the independence of public broadcasting. “I'm not qualified to make a direct link to the Bush administration.”
What Myrland worries about amid the hubbub is that some moderate Republicans who otherwise wouldn't give public broadcasting's slant a moment's consideration might listen to their leaders talk about a liberal bias-as they've long been doing when the conversation's about the mainstream media-and start to question, even subconsciously, the motives of producers. He doesn't want PBS and NPR politicized.
“I'd rather have my viewers and listeners make up their own minds, rather than read what someone like Ken Tomlinson-or Bill Moyers, for that matter-says and say, ‘Well, maybe they're right.'”
That sort of development could erode the credibility and the trust people have in the programming. “That's all we really have... and anything that chips away at that is worrisome.”
A man can dream, can't he?
“My fondest wish,” Myrland said, “would be that all the CPB board members would wake up tomorrow morning and say, ‘You know, I have a higher responsibility rather than just to the political trends of the day. My higher responsibility is to the long-term health of public broadcasting, and my primary job as a board member is to secure as much federal funding for their good efforts as possible.... It's not up to me to pass judgment on individual creative or journalistic efforts....' They'd wake up being really high-minded and really dedicated.”