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Senate spurns joker with a partisan schtick

Originally published in Current, Sept. 25, 2006
By Karen Everhart

After nary a partisan squabble in their Senate hearing last week, two of President Bush’s three nominees for the CPB Board, former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor and KQED Board member Chris Boskin, have good prospects for confirmation as early as this week.

The third nominee, TV sitcom writer/producer Warren Bell, was nowhere to be seen — left out of the hearing by Senate Commerce Committee leaders after public broadcasters, Common Cause activists and others objected to his stridently conservative quips.

“To me, the whole thing that’s happening to Warren was almost out of revenge for Ken Tomlinson,” said Ron Hart, a colleague of Bell’s on the ABC sitcom According to Jim. “It’s like, ‘The last conservative we had here was a jerk, and we don’t want any more of those.’”

Tomlinson, the past CPB chair, was forced to resign from the CPB Board last year after CPB’s inspector general found he had overstepped his role and inserted partisanship into program decisions.

Bell declined to comment on his predicament. The White House expressed continued support for him last week, but the nomination is unlikely to move forward. “The situation is a bit of a pickle,” said a Hill staffer.

Members of the Commerce Committee that oversees CPB had received “letters of protest from groups all over the country,” said another Hill staffer, and were unwilling to support Bell’s nomination. Given all the upheaval that CPB endured over Tomlinson, no one wanted another “fiasco” over partisanship at CPB, the staffer said.  

 “The White House probably recognizes that the opposition to Mr. Bell’s nomination was bipartisan and fairly deep on the committee,” said John Lawson, president of America’s Public Television Stations.

 Meanwhile Senate confirmation of Pryor and Boskin is expected this week.

 “You are all very qualified for the positions in which you have agreed to serve,” said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), committee chair, after hearing testimony from Pryor, Boskin and nominees to two other government agencies at the Sept. 21 hearing. “We’ll maintain interest in CPB and will continue to work with you there, and I’ll be pleased to move these nominations.”

Pryor, a former governor and senator from Arkansas who would take a Democratic seat on the CPB Board, told the committee he brings “no agenda with my nomination” and acknowledged that he has little expertise in broadcasting. “But I do hope I bring . . . a strong commitment to the corporation’s continued excellence,” he said, and added that he hopes his life experiences “can somehow be utilized to be a constructive advocate as a member of this distinguished board.”

The nominee, who retired from the Senate in 1997 after 34 years of elective office, served later as director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was the first dean of the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas.

Boskin, a veteran magazine executive who would hold a Republican seat on the board, described public broadcasting as a source of quality programming that reaches out to the underserved, presents a range of viewpoints and “educates . . . and inspires us to change the world,” she said. “That is the core mission of public broadcasting and the one I would work to advance as a member of the CPB Board of Directors.”

Boskin is the spouse of Michael Boskin, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors for President George H.W. Bush.

If Boskin and Pryor are confirmed, the CPB Board would have four Republican members, three Democrats and one independent. Bell was to fill the other open Republican seat.
A Democratic slot will open at the end of the year when Frank Cruz leaves the board after 12 years of service.

Though the Senate hearing avoided partisan strife, it’s unclear whether the two new directors will be able to help the CPB Board resolve an apparent party-line deadlock over its own leadership.

In the board’s Sept. 18 meeting in Phoenix, directors split 3-3 on reelection of Gay Hart Gaines as vice chair. With three Republicans and three non-Republicans voting, the choice was between Gaines, a Republican fundraiser and socialite from Palm Beach, Fla., and Louisiana Public Broadcasting chief Beth Courtney, a former chair of APTS and NETA who claims no political affiliation but often votes with the Democrats. Since the votes split evenly in three ballots, CPB bylaws allow Gaines to serve as vice chair until a board majority votes to reelect or replace her.

The board voted by acclamation to reelect Chair Cheryl Halpern, a New Jersey businesswoman and GOP donor who served on the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors. But the vice chairmanship has been a sore point; the job traditionally has not gone to a member of the chair’s party.

What does Bell believe?

Opposition to Bell’s nomination began mounting in June, as soon as the White House announced the three CPB Board nominations.

The comedy writer played up his views with insouciant political incorrectness in columns for National Review Online. Bell told readers his only agenda was to “get rid” of Elmo, the red darling of Sesame Street.

Early this month, Common Cause began drumming up opposition to Bell’s nomination, posting a selection of the nominee’s remarks on its website. For instance: “I am thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues. I support a woman’s right to choose what movie we should see, but not that other one. I am on the Right in every way.”

Pubcasting lobbyists actively worked against Bell’s confirmation. “This is a case where neither APTS nor NPR was looking for a confirmation fight with the White House, but we are not going to stand by either and allow nominations to go forward without comment that could end up doing further damage to public broadcasting,” Lawson said. “We’ve been quite active in working with Senate offices to express our reservations.” 

“For APTS, NPR and Congress, the damage caused by Ken Tomlinson highlighted the importance of these nominations,” Lawson said. “Mr. Bell’s lack of credentials was in very stark contrast to the very high level of qualifications for the other two nominees.”

Although Bell’s own writings fueled grassroots opposition to his nomination, a letter from two former Hollywood colleagues influenced the Senate committee’s decision to drop Bell from the hearing agenda. Jeffrey Hodes and Nastaran Dibai, who worked with Bell on According to Jim, said he told them years ago that he was opposed to federal funding for public broadcasting.

In an interview, the couple recalled a lunchtime conversation about public broadcasting in which Bell said he would “dismantle” publicly funded stations.

“This was what he stated before he was up for the job, so this must be his true feelings,” Dibai said. “He has modified his position since being nominated.” 

Hodes and Dibai decided to contact the committee because other former colleagues who joined the lunchroom debate still work for Bell.

“We felt that someone had to stand up who had nothing to gain and something to lose,” said Dibai. “This is not personal and it’s not professional, but we need to say, ‘This is the wrong person for the job, based on his views and his own public statements.’”

Hart, who still works with Bell, said he’s discussed public broadcasting with Bell and never heard him say “anything remotely close to ‘It should be dismantled’ or ‘It shouldn’t exist.’” He’s vouching for Bell on his own volition, he said.
“The sense I get from Warren is that he thinks his background in scripted programming could be helpful to PBS, and he could inspire or motivate a new emphasis on scripted programming,” Hart said. “There’s been a void there.” 

Lawson said Bell’s idea that he could bring his scripting ability to the CPB Board job reflects a fundamental “misunderstanding of his role.”

“As Ken found out, we don’t need members of the board involved in programming decisions.”

Web page posted Sept. 27, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Chris Boskin

David Pryor

EARLIER ARTICLES

The Tomlinson Affair in 2005 raised issues of partisan influence on the board.

President nominates Pryor for Democratic seat, November 2005. The ex-senator is also father of a present senator.

Bell joins Boskin and Pryor as nominees, June 2006.

LINKS

Common Cause makes its case against Bell's appointment.

On Huffington Post, another TV scriptwriter imagines Bell's first day in public broadcasting.

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