WASHINGTON – In a world of 500 television channels, Congress is debating whether the government should be in the business of funding public broadcasting, and if so whether it is properly addressing concerns about alleged bias in its programming.
Some Democrats on the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee said Monday that, in fact, too much attention is being paid to biases that don't exist in the Public Broadcasting Service.
Sen. Dick Durbin (search), D-Ill., sharply questioned Kenneth Tomlinson (search), the conservative chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is responsible for administering funding of PBS and National Public Radio, about Tomlinson's efforts to bring balance to PBS.
Tomlinson argues that the show "Now," formerly hosted by Bill Moyers (search), leans left and needs to be balanced with right-leaning programs like The Wall Street Journal's "Journal Editorial Review."
"If we have programs like the Moyers' program, that tilt clearly to the left, then I think according to the law we need to have a program that goes along with it that tilts to the right, and let the people decide," Tomlinson said, adding that the only Republicans or conservatives who appeared on Moyers' show agreed with the host on the issue.
"I don't quite get it, understand what your agenda is here — and what you're trying to achieve," Durbin said. "You perceived a problem here which the American people did not perceive."
PBS receives about 15 percent of its operating budget, or $48.5 million, from the corporation. Republicans on the House panel overseeing funding for CPB tried to cut $100 million from $400 million previously pledged to the corporation, however the money was restored in a full House vote.
Monday's testimony was also the opportunity of Patricia Harrison, the new president and CEO of CPB, to make her first public appearance. Harrison, who has been on the job for less than a week, asked lawmakers to continue federal funding of the CPB.
A former Republican Party official, she pledged impartiality.
"First, let me say before I'm a member of any party, I'm an American," she said.
Though PBS and NPR have loyal followings, some in Washington argue that the government should not be in the business of funding public broadcasting at all.
"Congress and the Appropriations Committee should be looking for opportunities to cut non-essential spending. In a world of 500 channels and the World Wide Web, government-funded radio and television networks are non-essential," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute.
That doesn't seem likely since public broadcasting has many powerful allies in the Senate, including Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.
"This system needs our support," he said.
Though some House conservatives have strong feelings about stripping public funds from public broadcasting, they have been somewhat mollified by Harrison's arrival on the scene.
In addition, no one in Congress particularly wants to be known as the elected official who killed off Big Bird and Elmo. Most observers of the budget process say they believe federal funding will continue, but a lot more people will be watching for signs of bias in either direction.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Brian Wilson.