Public television came under intense scrutiny on two fronts yesterday. The Senate began debate on how much money should be spent on the public airwaves, and a Washington research company released a study purporting to show that PBS documentaries have a liberal bias.
The Senate began debate on a spending package that would give $1.1 billion to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 1994 to 1996. Last fall, that package was derailed after a handful of senators anonymously placed a "hold" on it, leading to yesterday's debate.
It was still unclear yesterday who placed the hold. Nevertheless, seven powerful Republican senators unsuccessfully sought to open the bill to unlimited debate, which could have had the effect of killing the bill outright, or amending it.
Instead, the senators -- Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, Bob Smith of New Hampshire, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Larry Craig of Idaho, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas -- argued for greater accountability of the public airwaves.
The fate of the spending bill has been a topic of major concern in public TV circles, not only because of the money, but because no one was certain why the bill was held up in the first place. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow.
Many suspected that the hold was the inspiration of a handful of Republican senators who were angered, in part, by National Public Radio's reporting on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.
Meanwhile, The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a non-ideological group that studies the content of news programs, released a study finding that PBS documentaries lacked "diversity and balance." The study faulted PBS for "consistently favoring liberal positions" on such issues as war and peace, the environment and women and minorities.
Robert Ottenhoff, executive vice president of PBS, called it "clearly a political tract . . . that is motivated by the same political bias that it purports to study."