Public Media Policybase

Field guide to CPB’s conflicting mandates

By Steve Behrens

When Congress adopted the Public Broadcasting Act 40 years go, it put its contribution to public TV and radio into the hands of the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a structural characteristic and two mandates that have caused conflict and inertia ever since.

The law has the President nominate the CPB Board and the Senate confirm the CPB Board.

Rather than keeping political appointees off the board, it splits them almost equally. The majority are chosen by the White House from its own party and the minority of board members named, in practice, by Senate leaders of the other party. The appointment has become a mid-level plum for political appointees. Many are generous Republican and Democratic party donors. Some are former office holders or spouses or public relations aides to them.

Passages from the law below are linked to the full text on Cornell University’s website.

Text: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting shall have a Board of Directors (hereinafter in this section referred to as the “Board”), consisting of 9 members appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. No more than 5 members of the Board appointed by the President may be members of the same political party.
See text of Section 396(c)(1) in context

Then the law directs CPB to protect public broadcasting from political interference.

In describing CPB’s purposes, the law authorizes it to:

Text: facilitate the full development of public telecommunications in which programs of high quality, diversity, creativity, excellence, and innovation, which are obtained from diverse sources, will be made available to public telecommunications entities, with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature;
Text of 396(g)(1)(A) in context

The law also:

prohibits political tests in hiring CPB “officers, agents or employees,” except in the partisan apportioning of board members in (c)(1);
Text of 396(e)(2) in context

prohibits CPB giving money or support to any elective candidate or political party; and
Text of 396(f)(3) in context

prohibits funding to any entity that rents donor names to or from political organizations.
Text of 396(k)(12) in context

The law also prohibits noncommercial stations from supporting or opposing elective candidates.
Text of Section 399

And it prohibits federal employees and agencies from supervising public telecommunications, CPB, grantees or contractors (except in enforcing equal employment opportunity laws).
Text of Section 398

Nevertheless the law also mandates CPB, controlled by political appointees, to involve itself (some would say interfere) in fostering political objectivity and balance in public broadcasting.

Text: carry out its purposes and functions and engage in its activities in ways that will most effectively assure the maximum freedom of the public telecommunications entities and systems from interference with, or control of, program content or other activities.
Text of 396(g)1)(D) in context

In 1992, Congress added specific objectivity-and-balance obligations to CPB’s authorizing law.
Text of amendment.

Understandably, the organization has difficulty satisfying these inevitably conflicting mandates to everyone’s satisfaction.

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