The battle for control of public broadcasting seesawed yesterday as the embattled Corporation for Public Broadcasting chose a former Republican Party official as its new president, and the House of Representatives restored $100 million in cuts proposed for PBS television and National Public Radio by Republicans in Congress.
The day's events showed the political muscle of the public broadcasting community that descended on Washington this week with an army of PBS station managers lobbying Congress to restore financial support for series like Masterpiece Theatre and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. But they also demonstrated the tenacity of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the controversial chairman of CPB, in his campaign to purge the agency of what he says is the organization's "liberal bias."
"This is a civil war over public broadcasting going on -- make no mistake about it," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based liberal media watchdog group.
Chester decried the selection of Patricia S. Harrison, former chair of the Republican Party, for the $170,000-a-year job as president and CEO of CPB, characterizing it as the crowning blow in what he sees as a campaign by Tomlinson to "stack" CBP with "arch-conservative" board members.
"That's the kind of thing you hear only when a Republican is involved," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for Washington's Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.
"Democrats have served in these kinds of positions to no controversy. Why is that?" he asked rhetorically, pointing out that no one alleged partisanship when Frank Mankiewicz, campaign manager for 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, was named the first president of NPR.
Just as Chester called it a "dark, dark day" for public broadcasting came news that the House had voted 284-140 to repudiate cuts made last week by the Appropriations Committee, lifting the spirits of those who had worried aloud during the week over the future of public broadcasting.
"We want to thank our viewers and members for their outpouring of support," said Maryland Public Television President and CEO Robert J. Shuman, who walked the halls of Congress this week lobbying members to restore the funds. "We also want to express our appreciation to the Maryland delegation in the House of Representatives for their bipartisan commitment to MPT and our service to local communities."
Seven of the eight Maryland congressmen voted to restore the funding; Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted no.
The vote passed because public broadcasters put pressure on lawmakers through their viewers and listeners, said Rep. David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who sponsored the amendment. "Public broadcasting is fortunate, because unlike so many other people, they have access to the public," he said. "I think this will stick, because the public is watching."
As it now stands, the House appropriations bill still will eliminate $23 million that had been earmarked next year for the PBS Ready to Learn program that funds such children's TV series as Sesame Street and Postcards From Buster. Nonetheless, there was a general sense of relief yesterday among PBS executives and station managers that the cutbacks had not been even deeper.
The selection of Harrison, currently the U.S. assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, follows three days of closed-door meetings led by Tomlinson, who is under investigation for allegedly working with the Bush White House to politicize the agency. Formed by Congress in 1967, the CPB was created to protect public broadcasting from political influence and to distribute federal dollars to PBS, NPR, and hundreds of public television and radio stations across the country.
"I am pleased to join with the Board and all stakeholders in the future success of public broadcasting," Harrison said in a statement. She also "vowed to join with public broadcast leaders to restore congressional cuts," in the same statement, but offered no words of endorsement for PBS or NPR. "PBS has had concerns about the appointment of a former political party chair to the position of president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," said PBS President Pat Mitchell. "With that said, it is our hope and expectation that Ms. Harrison will execute her responsibility with nonpartisan integrity."
Less conciliatory sentiments were expressed in a June 17 letter to Tomlinson from Mary G.F. Bitterman, chairman of the board of PBS, who wrote: "The appointment of a CPB president with a history of national political party leadership, no matter how highly qualified or respected that individual is, would compromise the independence both in perception and in reality. It might also be construed as showing contempt for the nonpartisanship in public broadcasting desired by the American people."
But John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, which represents more than 300 public television stations across the country, softened the tone of previous comments from members of his organization yesterday, saying, "Patricia Harrison has a reputation for competence and inclusiveness. We will make every good faith effort to work with her. She has a unique opportunity to reach out to all sides and begin rebuilding trust in CPB. We also call on Ken Tomlinson to respect the limited role of chairman of CPB and let Ms. Harrison do her job."
Sun staff writer Gwyneth Shaw contributed to this article.