The Public Broadcasting Service has decided to hire an outside ombudsman to look at whether its programming leans too far to the left and whether editorial practices should be revised.
That is an excellent idea, though liberals among its fans may not agree. But if government money is to be funneled to the national public television network, the network should stay as much out of the political game as possible.
About 15 percent of PBS' budget comes from the federal government and the rest comes from state and foundation grants, sponsor/underwriter fees and memberships. The stations don't carry commercials, but underwriter recognition is valuable and reaches a high-end audience, so many ad agencies include underwriting in their client schedules.
Overall, the quality of public broadcasting through the years has been excellent, but some PBS arguments supporting its claim of impartiality are specious. PBS leaders are fond of citing polls that show the public considers public broadcasting to be fair, impartial and trustworthy.
That sounds wonderful, but the fact is there are two kinds of people who could possibly be polled for such a purpose, those who watch PBS programs or listen to the system's radio counterpart, National Public Radio and those who don't.
Those who watch or listen to such programming tend to agree with it and therefore consider it impartial, just as they consider themselves to be. Those who don't watch or listen can have only superficial impressions on which to base their opinions.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote the other day that the perception of liberal bias on PBS is not just held by Republicans. A fourth said: ''I doubt you could find a Democratic senator who, forced to announce the truth, standing at the gates of heaven and being questioned by St. Peter, would not, on being asked, 'By the way, is PBS liberal?' answer, 'Of course.' Or, 'Yes, but don't tell Tom Delay I knew.'''
... PBS' decision to hire an ombudsman and take a fresh look at whether its programming is biased is a pre-emptive strike that could head off attempts by government or other funding sources to impose their own restrictions. National Public Radio has had an ombudsman for several years and the quality of its programs seems unaffected.
Restrictions imposed from outside the PBS system run the risk of dumbing down some of the most intelligent programming on the airwaves.
It's a chance not worth taking.
Voice of the Times, Anchorage,
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