Republicans take aim at their small-screen enemies

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The Independent US

Democrats are in uproar over what they see as a naked attempt by Republicans to impose more conservative views on American public television and radio channels, notable for their sober and serious BBC-style reporting and analysis, but regarded by the right as a bastion of the detested "liberal media".

The attack is two-pronged, financial and managerial. Last week a House committee voted to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the supervisory agency for public television and radio, by 25 per cent, or $100m (£55m), to $300m.

Separately, Kenneth Tomlinson, the CPB chairman and a Republican, is said to be rushing through the appointment of Patricia Harrison as president and chief executive. Ms Harrison, a senior official at the State Department, has no broadcasting experience. She was however once co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

The Republican-dominated CPB board was scheduled to discuss the appointment yesterday, but every indication was that Ms Harrison would be chosen.

In a sign of Democratic unease, three leading senators ­ among them Hillary Clinton ­ have sent a letter to Mr Tomlinson urging a delay. The letter spoke of "serious concerns" about reports that Mr Tomlinson was interfering in the running of CPB, which distributes federal funding for public broadcasting, and which was set up to be a buffer that kept the politicians at a safe distance.

But at a time when Republicans control the White House as well as both chambers on Capitol Hill, such niceties count for little. Mr Tomlinson himself is on the record as wanting "to restore objectivity and balance" in programming ­ a thinly veiled complaint about public broadcasting's alleged liberal slant ­ which supporters see as a threat to its prized independence.

"Public media is now under attack ... by the right-wing media and their allies at the CPB," said Bill Moyers, the recently departed presenter of the NOW programme, a special bugbear of conservatives.

Under its new host, NOW has been slashed from an hour to 30 minutes in length, while a new talk show, featuring arch conservatives from The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, has been added.

In other controversial moves Mr Tomlinson has enlisted a former White House aide to keep an eye on two ombudsmen recently installed to monitor the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). Last week, it emerged that CPB last year paid some $15,000 to two Republican lobbyists, payments that were not revealed to the full board.

Public television and radio have frequently come under fire from conservatives, not least when Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, tried to remove federal funding in its entirely. Republicans argue that public broadcasting could easily reduce its reliance on federal funding by cashing in more effectively on popular programmes like the children's show Sesame Street ­ the set of which the US first lady, Laura Bush, vistited at the Alam Simsim studio in Giza during the President's trip to Egypt last month.

In fact, even if they go through, the cuts sought by the House would have a very limited direct impact on programming. But they will do nothing to boost flagging morale at PBS, where some senior executives have already left. Others fear that the political pressures will lead to self-censorship in public broadcasting.

CPB accounts for only a 10th of the annual financing of PBS, and less than 1 per cent of that of NPR. Donations are an important part of funding for many PBS and NPR stations.