The P stands for public

Perhaps it was a sign of the weirdness to come when administration officials urged local public television stations earlier this year not to broadcast an episode of Postcards from Buster because the show’s protagonist (a cartoon rabbit) visited a lesbian couple in Vermont.

A big flap ensued, yes, and the folly of such meddling was revealed. But that was not to be end of such foolishness. Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) board, has continued to press to correct what he and others perceive as a liberal bias in public broadcasting. (The CPB is a nonprofit corporation that Congress set up to fund the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).)

The New York Times revealed that Tomlinson, former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest and a Republican, had just appointed two conservative ombudsmen to “review the content of public radio and television broadcasts.” Tomlinson has worked on occasion with White House administrators, including Karl Rove, who helped him kill legislation that would have made the CPB require more board members who actually have media backgrounds.

In addition to Tomlinson minding the public airwaves, we also have Ken Ferree, the new chief executive of the CPB. Ferree, a Republican who played a key role in trying to reduce regulations that stop media mergers, admitted recently to journalists that he barely watches public television and doesn’t even listen to NPR.

Public broadcasting does not need a correction for bias. Indeed, two recent opinion polls (ones Tomlinson did not make public) indicated that a vast majority of Republicans and Democrats support PBS and feel it has no political bias.

America boasts 349 local public stations, each with its own community-based board of directors. These people—not partisan politicos—should be the ones to decide what to put on the public airwaves.

Reporters barred

California journalists shouldn’t have to go to grand lengths to interview inmates in the state’s prisons. But, thanks to a law signed by former Governor Pete Wilson in 1996, reporters suddenly couldn’t bring tape-recording equipment or television cameras into such places. Journalists were hobbled considerably in their ability to tell important stories.

Reduced access has meant diminished media coverage of prisons at the exact same time as our corrections department—with its soaring budget—has been wracked with scandal, fiscal embarrassment and a general work climate that seems to promote silence and secrecy from the top down.

What the system could use is more transparency.

Thankfully, a bill that would help provide this just passed through a Senate committee a few weeks back. Its counterpart took its first steps forward in the Assembly earlier this month. The bills—Senate Bill 239 and Assembly Bill 698—would allow journalists to correspond confidentially with inmates (unless that was deemed a security problem) and conduct interviews using necessary journalistic devices—i.e., cameras and recording equipment.

We urge the passage of these bills as a way to help end one aspect of the cult of secrecy in our prisons.