Click here to read Sen. Harkin's statement in PDF form or read plain text below:
Mr. HARKIN. Mr. President, I thank the managers of the Department of Defense authorization bill, Senators WARNER and LEVIN, for their assistance earlier this week in adopting an important amendment. I offered the amendment, now a provision of this bill, to express the sense of the Senate concerning programming on American Forces Radio and Television Service, AFRTS.
As my colleagues know, for American service members and their families stationed in more than 177 countries and U.S. territories around the world, as well as for DOD civilians and their families, AFRTS is intended to broadcast a ``touch of home'' by providing programming that reflects a cross section of what is widely available to stateside audiences. According to the AFRTS website, its programming is meant to ``represent what is seen and heard in the United States.''
I support AFRTS in its mission. Making U.S. entertainment and news programming available to American service members wherever they are located is important for their morale and to keep them informed. I believe the fiscal year 2004 funding level of $47 million for AFRTS is justified.
Several weeks ago, however, it came to my attention that the programming on one AFRTS service--its ``uninterrupted voice,'' or talk radio, service--has what I consider to be a political bias in its social and political commentary.
For the information of my colleagues, the radio broadcast component of AFRTS, which is American Forces Radio, consists of 13 channels, or ``services.'' Seven of these radio services focus on music, with news briefs at the top of every hour. Two are continuous news information services. One service broadcasts National Public Radio 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Two services are continuous sports talk. The final service is what the network calls uninterrupted voice service, or talk radio service.
Based on conversations between my staff and personnel at AFRTS, I believe the bias that exists in the social and political commentary portions of this talk radio service is not intentional. I commend the openness of American Forces Radio officials in the dialogue we have now begun on this topic. But in my view the bias in this programming is real.
Public criticism of American Forces Radio content has focused on the fact that Rush Limbaugh's commentary is carried daily on the talk radio service. I generally do not agree with Rush Limbaugh's commentaries. But I do not object to the fact that they are run on a daily basis on this service. Some people do object. However, what I do take issue with is the fact that there is no commentary on the service that would even begin to balance the extreme right-wing views that Rush Limbaugh routinely expresses on his program.
Critics have specifically cited Rush Limbaugh's use of his show to condone and trivialize the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. As many of my colleagues know, and as has been pointed out previously here on the Senate floor, Mr. Limbaugh reportedly likened the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib to a fraternity initiation. He called some of the abusive tactics a ``brilliant maneuver.'' I think the critics are right. Limbaugh's remarks--and there are many more offensive remarks by Mr. Limbaugh on this topic than I have mentioned here--are repugnant. They do damage to the American image when they are heard around the world. I would guess that Limbaugh's comments on Abu Ghraib also probably offend a large majority of American service members.
Still, I am not calling for American Forces Radio to pull Rush Limbaugh's commentaries from their talk radio service. I am asking, and I am pleased that the Senate is now on record asking, that AFRTS meet its own mandate, as generally articulated in Department of Defense Regulation 5120.20R. That regulation calls for AFRTS political programming that is ``characterized by its fairness and balance,'' as well as news programming guided by a ``principle of fairness'' that requires ``reasonable opportunities for the presentation of conflicting views on important controversial public issues.''
Liberals, moderates and independents contribute to funding for American Forces Radio through payment of their taxes, just like conservatives do. There is no reason that American service members should receive lengthy right-wing commentaries with regularity on American Forces Radio's talk service, without some balance from competing views as part of that same service. For the good of its listeners, and to meet its own mandate, American Forces Radio needs to make a greater effort to give a balanced, fair representation of varying political viewpoints on its talk radio service.
In conversations with my staff, individuals at AFRTS have said that their programming of Rush Limbaugh on the talk service is driven strictly by national ratings here in the States. That was not the position taken by a DOD official on CNN earlier this month, however. According to news coverage posted on CNN.com, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber has said that the appropriateness of content is a factor in deciding what commentaries are broadcast on American Forces Radio.
I agree with the Deputy Assistant Secretary's statement. Content is a factor in deciding which commentaries to run on American Forces Radio. At the same time, I also agree with stated AFRTS policy. There should be fairness and balance in political programming on American Forces Radio.
My amendment in no way prescribes specific content or programming at AFRTS. That is not the role of the Senate. What my amendment does do, appropriately, is state that it is the sense of the Senate that the Secretary of Defense should ensure that AFRTS policies of fairness and balance are being fully implemented. The amendment calls on the Secretary to develop appropriate methods of oversight in this regard. I look forward to working with the Department and others to see that AFRTS meets these proper goals.