Hot Seat Expected for New Chair of Corporation for Public Broadcasting

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 28, 2005, issue of October 28, 2005.
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As Republican fund raiser and pro-Israel activist Cheryl Halpern assumes the chairmanship of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, she is taking on what has become one of the most politically charged jobs in Washington — and activists on all sides are waiting to see whether she revives some of the controversial practices of her conservative predecessor.

Halpern, a longtime leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition who has raised millions for GOP causes, took over the public broadcasting chairmanship from Kenneth Tomlinson last month. During his tenure, Tomlinson stoked controversy by taking several steps to impose what he termed “political balance” on public broadcasting, with liberals accusing him of pushing a conservative agenda.

Tomlinson hired a consultant to monitor liberal bias in public television programs, and he reportedly cited the need for “balance” to justify the decision to provide financing for a conservative program featuring the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. He appointed two ombudsmen to address complaints from the public and government officials — even though the CPB does not produce any of the programming on public television or public radio. He also conceived, but did not implement, a plan to monitor National Public Radio — a frequent target of some Jewish groups — for anti-Israel bias.

Halpern, who was appointed to the CPB board in 2002, declined to be interviewed by the Forward. A spokesman at the CPB said she was waiting for the release of an inspector general’s report, due out next month, on several of the steps taken by Tomlinson.

The CPB, which received about $400 million from the federal government in 2004, makes grants to support public broadcasting but does not have direct control over content. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 and the Public Telecommunications Act of 1992 require that CPB ensure “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”

At the November 2003 confirmation hearing naming her to the CPB board, Halpern said that friends had complained that NPR’s coverage was biased against Israel, according to an account of her remarks in the magazine Current. On her election as chairman last month, Halpern said in a statement that the CPB would retain the two ombudsman positions created by her predecessor.

“We have a duty,” she said, “to provide the public an explanation for the kind of work we do — and we must honor the principles clearly stated in our charter: to encourage objective and balanced programming.”

Interest groups of various ideological stripes are watching to see if Halpern carries on her predecessor’s overall push to monitor domestic political coverage. In addition, some activists are waiting to see if she presses for greater oversight when it comes to coverage of the Middle East.

From 1998 to 2002, Halpern headed the United Nations Advisory Council of B’nai Brith International, which frequently has accused the U.N. of bias against Israel. In 2001, she personally funded a review of antisemitic material in Syrian schoolbooks. Two years later, as an American delegate to a conference on antisemitism organized by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, she spoke about children’s programming and textbook development.

Along with her Jewish and pro-Israel activism, Halpern has held several positions connected to American-funded broadcasting. In 1990, she was appointed as a member of the Board for International Broadcasting and as a director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. From 1995 to 2002, she served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors overseeing Voice of America, Radio/TV Marti, RFE/RL, WorldNet, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Iraq.

The liberal good-government group Common Cause, for one, sees Halpern as potentially interfering with NPR’s broadcasting on Israel.

On the left-leaning radio show “Democracy Now!” Common Cause’s vice president for advocacy, Celia Viggo Wexler, called Halpern “a very ardent, pro-Israeli person” and asked, “Can she separate that point of view, which is an advocacy point of view, from understanding how journalists do their job, and that their fact-based reporting… sometimes is going to be critical of Israel?”

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the pro-Israel group Committee for Accuracy In Middle East Reporting in America, is one of NPR’s leading critics. He said that Tomlinson should have been more subtle in addressing bias in public broadcasting.

“Tomlinson’s scrutiny was too direct,” Rozenman said. “The expectations are for a more sensitive approach to the same issue.”

Still, Rozenman said, oversight is needed. He added that he hopes Halpern and other CPB board members will continue “to be interested in the issues we raise and the material we supply.”

NPR officials have rejected Camera’s demands for oversight, saying they are based on a false premise.

Andi Sporkin, NPR’s vice president of communications, said that the CPB supplies only 1% of NPR’s budget, mostly in grants for new programming, and has no legal oversight mandate over the radio network. Most CPB money for radio broadcasting goes directly to public radio stations, she said.

“We can’t suddenly swing to reflect any funder’s interest,” Sporkin said.

In order to satisfy any questions that arise over NPR’s Middle East coverage, NPR posts at its Web site transcripts of each piece it airs on the subject. It also commissions a quarterly analysis by an outside journalist, which is posted, as well, Sporkin said.

Regarding Halpern’s chairmanship, Sporkin offered a statement saying that “the events at CPB over the last six months have been disappointing for public radio as we’ve watched an organization that has supported public broadcasting for four decades, and through all administrations, become an instrument of ideology and agenda. Our hope is that the new leadership acknowledges the value that Congress and millions of Americans have placed on public broadcasting’s service and integrity; restores the vital firewall, and rights the course of CPB.”

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