Bushification is bringing PBS and NPR to heel

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Bushification is bringing PBS and

The conservative attack on independent journalism has begun to spread, as it was bound to do sooner or later, to public radio and television.

Political appointees are filling an increasing number of key positions, jeopardizing the ability of public broadcasting to continue providing its singular contribution to the nation's mix of reporting and commentary, a contribution marked by its depth and by its willingness to take on topics commercial broadcasters shrug off.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting oversees PBS television and National Public Radio. By congressional act, it is chartered to provide ''maximal protection from extraneous interference . . . '' For ''extraneous'' read ''political.'' That was the law's plain intent.

But creeping Bushification is instead bringing PBS and NPR to heel - in the name, of course, of ''balance.''

The public networks' news programs - programs like NPR's ''Morning Report'' and ''All Things Considered'' and PBS's ''NewsHour With Jim Lehrer'' - are in fact models of fairness, in part just because they delve into stories in more detail than most commercial newscasts have time for.

PBS's ''Now,'' as led until recently by Bill Moyers, particularly got under conservatives' skin, and while, yes, that program has been arguably liberal, Moyers even so was scrupulous about including conservatives among the show's on-camera sources.

It was to counter ''Now'' that Kenneth Tomlinson, who now heads CPB, helped to create ''The Journal Editorial Report,'' which relies on the uniformly conservative editorial writers and columnists of the Wall Street Journal, and ''Tucker Carlson Unfiltered,'' featuring the commentator who previously served as a right-wing battler for CNN's ''Crossfire.''

Tomlinson has hired not one but two ombudsmen for CPB, apparently to guarantee that conservative complaints will win validation from at least one ombudsman. And he has ordered up new guidelines for fairness, even though the networks have operated by firm standards all along.

All of this, and the chilling effect it is presumably intended to produce, is in the service of Tomlinson's declared ambition to eliminate ''the perception of bias'' that he says undermines public support for the networks.

But polls have found the overwhelming majority of listeners and viewers unburdened by any such perception. Complaints about liberal bias are relatively rare and not much more common than complaints of conservative bias. Most of NPR's audience - 22 million a week and growing - rates its news reports as trustworthy.

Conservative cadres are working relentlessly to discredit mainstream media, a term they use with theatrical disdain. The political trick is dismiss any reporting that isn't identifiably conservative or that doesn't come from the conservative playbook as therefore liberal. The perception of bias that Tomlinson senses is held mainly in his conservative activist circles and can be squared, not by real balance but only by a strong rightward lean that declares itself as balance.

In the politically degraded Orwellian tongue that Washington speaks so fluently these days, ''fair'' and ''balanced'' have become benign masks for their malign opposites.