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Public Television Executive Argues Against Political Meddling

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The president and CEO of PBS gave a speech today declaring that public broadcasting should remain free from political interference. Those comments by PBS' Pat Mitchell come at a time of heightened tensions between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS and NPR. CPB's chairman has been pressing for PBS and NPR to be more responsive to public concerns, including those from lawmakers, who say their news organizations' coverage tilts to the left. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Pat Mitchell never named CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson in her address today at the National Press Club in Washington, but she had some pointed words to say for his drive for what he calls `greater fairness and balance.'

Ms. PAT MITCHELL (President and CEO, PBS): We cannot afford, quite literally, to engage in destructive allegations based on personal perceptions clearly not shared by the growing number of listeners to NPR and the growing number of viewers of PBS.

FOLKENFLIK: Mitchell will step down in June 2006. In her speech today, Mitchell cited polls showing great public trust in PBS. She said she can't raise money to expand its offerings unless that trust stays high.

Ms. MITCHELL: Trust is the currency on which PBS and 349 local stations are building their future. And we are vigilant about preserving it, about protecting it and, yes, about defending it.

FOLKENFLIK: CPB is the congressionally chartered corporation that helps to subsidize PBS and NPR member stations and several programs with federal money. NPR and PBS are independent, not-for-profit organizations. Tomlinson declined to comment after Mitchell's speech, but in recent interviews with NPR, he said that it's unrealistic to refuse to recognize that many Americans do perceive bias in public broadcasting.

Mr. KENNETH TOMLINSON (Chair, Corporation for Public Broadcasting): If by being sensitive about making sure our reporting is straight--if that helps gain support for public broadcasting, then, as the chairman of CPB, I think we should do that.

FOLKENFLIK: Last week NPR's CEO, Kevin Klose, said Tomlinson seemed to be seeing a threat where one doesn't exist.

KEVIN KLOSE (CEO, National Public Radio): And what we have had for years has been wide support and bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. So I think Mr. Tomlinson is trying to--again, without possession of facts, to create a perception which is not an accurate perception.

FOLKENFLIK: Today Mitchell echoed those remarks. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: You can hear all of Pat Mitchell's National Press Club speech at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.