Big Bird gave San Bernardino County Congressman Jerry Lewis a black eye last week. Lewis, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is the conservative obscurantist who has been leading the right-wing Republican effort to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — which provides funding for PBS, NPR and their local affiliates — and put it out of existence.
But last Thursday, when the CPB appropriation came up for a vote on the floor of the House, the 25 percent budget cut Lewis had forced through his committee was restored, thanks to defections by Republicans afraid of public broadcasting’s popularity in the opinion polls — 87 GOPers deserted their party leadership and voted to give back to CPB $100 million Lewis had snatched from it.
However, Lewis and the Republicans — who want eventually to phase out CPB’s appropriation altogether — can still boast that they’ve managed to kill another $102.3 million in federal funding for public broadcasting. They’ve erased $79 million for PBS and its affiliates that funded both a satellite interconnection program to send content to local stations, and public TV stations’ federally mandated conversion to digital transmission. And they’ve pulled the $23 million for TV from the “Ready To Read, Ready To Learn” program — Laura Bush’s putative darling — which had helped pay for PBS children’s programming. This Lewis-sponsored cut successfully eliminates funding for Postcards From Buster, the kids’ show that became the target of censorious, anti-gay attacks by George Bush’s secretary of education?, Margaret Spellings, when it showed Buster visiting a Vermont family headed by a lesbian couple. Thanks to Lewis, Buster — a cartoon rabbit — won’t be sending any more post cards. Other popular children’s programs deprived of funding by Lewis include Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur and Dragon Tales (Sesame Street, which has other funding sources, isn’t as vulnerable as these other shows, which don’t).
And Lewis’ anti-PBS crusade is only part of the Republicans’ all-out effort to tame public broadcasting.
First, just who is Jerry Lewis? A member of Congress since 1978, Lewis represents the safest Republican seat in California, a sprawling district (made even safer for the GOP in the last redistricting) that includes the easternmost suburbs of the Greater Los Angeles area, as well as the fastest-growing communities in the Mojave Desert, and stretches all the way to the Nevada border. So entrenched is Lewis that the Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against him in the last two elections.
That’s hardly surprising given Lewis’ record of vindictiveness against his political opponents. “Lewis has a troubling, angry side, and an intimidating electoral style that can best be described as embodying pre-Watergate ethics,” says a prominent Democratic activist and businessman in Lewis’ district who, fearing reprisals from Lewis, requested anonymity. “The last time we put up a serious candidate against Lewis, he really went after the guy, put muckraking ‘political consultants’ on him paid out of campaign funds, went after our candidate’s clients and tried to ruin him, pressured one of our guy’s clients into suing him — Lewis is a take-no-prisoners kind of fellow.”
Lewis is a longtime congressional water carrier for the military-industrial complex, and for years has raked in big campaign bucks from its corporate behemoths like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, United Technologies, General Dynamics and General Atomics. Lewis’ congressional district is chock-full of military bases — including the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Command, Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.
Another huge facility in Lewis’ district is the million-acre Army National Training Center for desert warfare. A middle school, built to serve the center’s off-base military families, bears Lewis’ name, and is a charter school funded with what are called “special-impact funds,” which Lewis procured. The school was the centerpiece in another unsavory political scandal involving Lewis. A few years ago, a school-board member in the Silver Valley United School District, which has jurisdiction over the middle school, discovered some $15 million in cost overruns at the Lewis school, as the Desert Dispatch and the San Bernardino Sun reported at the time. A General Accounting Office investigation found dozens of irregularities, and a draft report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s Office sharply criticized the Lewis school’s management. Lewis’ reaction to all this? He had his cronies initiate a successful recall election against the obstreperous school-board member who’d spotlighted the fraud, twisted arms to destroy the man’s business, and, as the then-chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing Defense appropriations, put pressure on the Pentagon to scrub its scandal-revealing draft report, which no longer officially exists (although a copy is in the possession of local Democrats). Lewis is not a politician many have the guts to cross swords with.
Illustration by Mr. Fish
Most worrisome to supporters of PBS, however, is Lewis’ reputation as a master of the backroom deal in the House-Senate conferences that resolve differences in the bills passed by the two chambers. The CPB appropriation now goes to the Senate — where the Appropriations Committee chairman is ultraconservative Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran, a darling of the Christer right that has been crusading against PBS. When Lewis and Cochran put their heads together in the House-Senate conference to cut a deal after the Senate acts on this year’s appropriations bill, last Thursday’s moral victory for public broadcasting may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic one.
And that’s not all. On the same day as the House vote on its budget, the board of directors of CPB — under the thumb of its hard-line Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson — voted to name as CPB’s new president and CEO a partisan political operative: Patricia deStacy Harrison, a co-chair of the Republican National Committee for four years (1997–2001) and a major fund-raiser for George Bush, who rewarded her with a job in the State Department. She co-chaired Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole’s finance committee in 1996, when it accepted $80,000 in contributions from employees of Empire Sanitary Landfill, a waste-management company later indicted for illegally funneling contributions to numerous federal campaigns and ordered to pay an $8 million fine, the largest Federal Election Commission fine in history. Harrison is a former lobbyist and PR woman with no public-broadcasting experience, and was selected by passing over four more-qualified finalists for the top CPB job. “Patricia Harrison’s selection as president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is an outrage — her complete lack of experience and close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party represent a new low in public-broadcasting history,” says Josh Silver, executive director of the media-reform group Free Press, which has been central in fighting the GOP’s effort to bring public broadcasting to heel.
Tomlinson, a close associate of Karl Rove, hammered through the hiring of Harrison despite a huge public outcry at her pending appointment. For example, two weeks ago, the board of Iowa Public Broadcasting, in a letter endorsed by the Association of Public Television Stations, wrote to the CPB, saying of the widely publicized news about the coming appointment of Harrison as CPB head: “We believe strongly that such an appointment would be in absolute contradiction to the concept of CPB as [a] buffer against political interference. It would call into question the motivations of everything we do, whether funded by CPB or not.”
The Harrison appointment is only the latest in a series of initiatives by Tomlinson — a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest — to stifle non-Republican thought at PBS. Former CPB board member Christy Carpenter told The New York Times that, under Tomlinson, there has been “an increasingly and disturbingly aggressive desire to be more involved [in running PBS] and to push programming in a more conservative direction.”
Tomlinson hired a Republican polling firm, the Tarrance Group (which had worked for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign), to take a poll on public broadcasting’s credibility. But he suppressed the poll’s findings when it revealed that PBS and NPR had an 80 percent favorable rating, and that a majority (55 percent) found PBS more “fair and balanced” than the Big Three broadcast networks, CNN or Fox News. He brought in a Bush operative, the director of the White House Office of Global Communications, to oversee two ombudsmen he appointed to scrutinize PBS programming for non-Republican thinking. And Tomlinson hired a special consultant, Fred Mann, to monitor “bias” in Bill Moyers’ PBS news magazine Now. Mann created categories of Moyers’ guests, in his reports to Tomlinson, that had headings like “anti-Bush,” “anti-business” and “anti–Tom DeLay.” Before being hired by Tomlinson at CPB, Mann worked for 20 years at the National Journalism Center, an organization founded by the American Conservative Union and M. Stanton Evans, a conservative columnist, and which counts among the alumni of its training programs Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter.
The assault on PBS “is being orchestrated by Karl Rove and the White House, and it isn’t going to stop until they reshape public broadcasting to their liking,” says Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Clearly, more dark days are still ahead for PBS.
DOUG IRELAND can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at https://direland.typepad.com/direland/.