Another dangerous appeal for balance

coppermug250x250 1 And now we return once again (cue: swirl of soapy organ music) to As Public Broadcasting Turns. That's kind of what I hear inside my head whenever I read news reports about the ongoing tensions in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting linked to the work of chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who, reporters always remind us, had this strange idea that PBS and NPR lean to the left. This, of course, is a ghost. While public broadcasting has its share of critics who are mere GOP politicos, NPR and PBS have also been criticized through the years for "liberal bias" on cultural and religious issues.

To make matters more complex, there is a solid and loyal progressive choir of listeners and viewers out there who sincerely like this progressive slant and feel quite possessive. So when NPR, for example, decides to reach out to a new demographic with an increased emphasis on religion news, these loyal listeners in the platinum-coffee-mug set tend to feel very uncomfortable.

Now, Tomlinson has stepped out of the line of fire and turned things over to yet another chairman, or chairperson, with conservative credentials -- Cheryl F. Halpern. And, according to a report by Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times, she is already saying dangerous things. For example:

"Our goal, whether it's in our support of educational children's television, insightful features and documentaries, or entertainment that sparkles, is to make public broadcasting a haven for the mind and for the spirit," Halpern said. "We have a duty to provide the public an explanation for the kind of work we do — and we must honor the principles clearly stated in our charter: to encourage objective and balanced programming."

Uh-oh. Here we have another one of those appeals to "balance" and even "objectivity" in news reporting. (Note to those about to click "comment." I like the word "balance," but much prefer "fairness" instead of the word "objectivity," a term that tends to lead into philosophical minefields.) Clearly, this is pro-conservative code language that could skew news reports toward the middle.

We can tell that this is dangerous code language, because the same point shows up again a few paragraphs later. Is Halpern some kind of fanatic?

"There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability," she told the Senate Commerce Committee at her confirmation hearing in 2003, according to Current, a public broadcasting trade publication.

After the board meeting Monday, Halpern was pressed by reporters on whether she shared Tomlinson's view of bias in the system. Halpern demurred, saying that two recently hired ombudsmen were now responsible for fielding such complaints. "We will not be intervening within programming," she said.

I find it interesting that these references to "balance," "bias" and "accountability" lead directly to the assumption that she might try to "intervene" in programming. Is the implication that she might seek new voices, new shows and more diversity? Or are the reporters suggesting that she might remove voices she considers "liberal"?

Horrors! Might she even offer new programs that take a balanced look at religious and cultural issues? Might we hear PBS- and NPR-worthy voices from the conservative side of religious sanctuaries?

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