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The war at PBS

LAST SUMMER, conservative columnist Cal Thomas was on television saying the country had lost the fight against gay marriage. He predicted problems ahead and offered a biblical context, saying: ''Paul talks about this eloquently in the New Testament and his letters, that the world will grow worse. People will believe whatever they wish to hear. Jesus said many will come in my name, false gods, false prophets, telling you things that are not of God, have nothing to do with them. This is the prophecy of the end times."

Where did Thomas air his views? On public television. The very same public television system that is currently being accused of having a liberal bias.

This critique is being led by Kenneth Tomlinson, the conservative chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Congress created in 1967 to ''facilitate the development of public telecommunications and to afford maximum protection from extraneous interference and control."

Tomlinson claims that PBS television lacks balance. And last year he hired a consultant to track the political leanings of guests on the show ''Now with Bill Moyers." Tomlinson could have just gone to PBS's website, where he would have found the transcript of Cal Thomas talking about Paul to none other than Bill Moyers on ''Now."

At the end of the interview Moyers says: ''I appreciate very much your joining us. We will never agree. We'll never settle this. But in a democracy, I hope we can keep discussing it in a civil way." And Thomas replies: ''Thanks, Bill. You do it better than anybody."

Other conservative guests have included Paul Gigot, editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and antitax crusader Grover Norquist. Moyers is expected to address the issue of fairness today at a conference in St. Louis.

An honest quest for balance is fine. And PBS has added conservatives to its program line-up. But Tomlinson should not compromise quality or legitimate, but politically unpopular, content.

Gunning for PBS seems a lot like a trumped-up battle in the culture wars that's meant to distract people or make the case for ending federal funding of public broadcasting -- which in 2004 supplied 24 percent, some $80 million, of its $333 million in revenues. Ending federal funding would be a mistake. Public broadcasting is one of the few serious free forums for quality programs. Public broadcasters provide educational services, access for deaf and blind viewers, high-definition television broadcasts, and air time for locally produced shows such as ''Nova" and ''Antiques Roadshow."

Public broadcasting needs public support. Viewers must condemn politicized attacks on a valuable public asset.

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