BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Public Broadcasting Service is supposed to operate entirely free of political pressure. To that end, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created as an independent body through which to funnel government support. Also to that end, only five members of CPB's nine member board can be from one party, and also to that end, Congress funds CPB two years in advance to shield it from momentary bursts of partisan anger. President Johnson envisioned a moat between politicians and Public Broadcasting when he proposed the system. Ken Auletta, how did Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, respond to the president's metaphor?
KEN AULETTA: Well, you know, Bill Moyers tells a great story. He was a young aide to Lyndon Johnson at the time, and, and Johnson told him that, and, and Wilbur Mills, they were sitting over Bourbon -- I assume it was Bourbon -- and he said "Well, Lyndon, you know, I - you know, I want to help you, I want to do all I can for you, but Lyndon, if you were me, you wouldn't let them have that kind of independence."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Auletta writes for the New Yorker. His new piece, Big Bird Flies Right, explains how Johnson's moat is rapidly being drained. Ken, welcome back to the show.
KEN AULETTA: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So PBS has always felt political pressure. Nixon tried to crush it. Reagan wanted to rescind CPB's appropriation. Politicians like Newt Gingrich openly went after it as a plaything of the elite--
KEN AULETTA: As have Democrats, by the way, over the years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you suggest that these full frontal political attacks on Public Broadcasting didn't work because it turned out it wasn't the plaything of the elite, but most importantly, a healthy companion for kids, and why would anybody want to kill Big Bird?
KEN AULETTA: Not only kids, which is ten to 12 hours a day of children's programming on PBS, which makes it very popular, but also a source for news and public affairs for much of the rest of the country, particularly rural America, and particularly when you count Public Radio. And so what Gingrich discovered in the '96 election was, after they attacked, Republicans attacked PBS and NPR and said we ought to get rid of it and stop funding it, they discovered that in fact their public, their constituents, wanted it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so what you're suggesting in your piece is that there is now opposition from a new quarter, from within the CPB itself, the very institution that was designed to protect it.
KEN AULETTA: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting spends about 60 or so million dollars a year on programming. When you see a program on the air, it is partially funded by CPB, in many cases. That is important seed money to go out and raise funds to pay for the rest of the cost of that programming. Now, obviously, the CPB does not control the air time. The air time is controlled by the stations and by PBS. The members of the Republican Party or the, or the Bush administration appointees to the CPB, they feel that PBS tilts to the left, and that a show like Moyers is a prime example of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We should identify Bill Moyers as not only a former aide to President Johnson, but also a, a long time staple of Public Broadcasting and currently the host of Now with Bill Moyers which has had a, a pretty strong anti-administration slant.
KEN AULETTA: Yes. One of the things that offends them is that Bill Moyers not only serves as a kind of a host or anchor, but then often gives commentaries, and his commentaries are often very critical of the Bush administration and Republicans in general. So, they, they are on the warpath, and have been, to get Bill Moyers. And then the question is, by then pushing for a series of more conservative-tilting shows, are they going too far?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about those shows. CPB is backing the creation of programs with a right wing tilt like that of conservative Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot. CPB will support those programs, but it says it has no intention of supporting Bill Moyers' Now. This agenda is pretty transparent, isn't it?
KEN AULETTA: It seems so to me. And part of that transparency is when I asked the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken Tomlinson, I said "What is it you want to have?" He said "I want a neutral host. And my model is," he said, "C-Span." Well, the truth of the matter is that neither Tucker Carlson who, you know, is -- no criticism of him personally nor of Paul Gigot -- again, no criticism of him personally -- but neither of them are neutral hosts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about what the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 said about the role of public broadcasting. Is the number one element supposed to be balance? Is it supposed to be an alternative? Is it supposed to serve the under-served and give voices to minorities?
KEN AULETTA: All of those are things that PBS, by the legislation that was passed in 1967, it's supposed to do. Now, how you prioritize that and which you value most is a question worthy of public debate. To date, we have not had that public debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken, thank you very much.
KEN AULETTA: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Auletta's article, Big Bird Flies Right, appears in the latest issue of the New Yorker, and FYI, both On the Media and its producing station, WNYC, have been recipients of CPB grants.