Kenneth Y. Tomlinson dies at 69; former Reader’s Digest editor and CPB chairman


Mr. Tomlinson at the offices of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2005. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, a former editor of Reader’s Digest who became chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one of several presidentially nominated roles in which he strenuously and at times controversially decried liberal bias in the media, died May 1 at a hospital in Winchester, Va. He was 69.

The cause was melanoma, his son Lucas Y. Tomlinson said.

Mr. Tomlinson grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and pursued his journalism career at Reader’s Digest, one of the largest-circulation publications in the country. He worked in the Washington bureau and as a foreign correspondent before rising to top editorial positions, including editor in chief, before retiring in 1996.

He took a hiatus from Reader’s Digest in 1982 when Republican President Ronald Reagan nominated him director of Voice of America, the international broadcasting organization funded by the U.S. government.

“I have often said that running a journalistic enterprise under government rules constitutes an unnatural act,” he quipped to the New York Times.

Mr. Tomlinson held the post for two years and was credited with working to modernize VOA equipment, some of which was decades old, and raise the institution’s profile. In addition to its regular reportage, the VOA began during the Reagan administration to air daily editorials.

“Someone complained that your editorials sound just like Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Tomlinson recalled , “and I said you’re darn right, and I’m proud of it. The editorials should reflect the viewpoint of the party in power.’’

In 2000, Democratic President Bill Clinton named him to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private, nonprofit body established by Congress to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to public broadcasting organizations such as PBS television and National Public Radio.

Mr. Tomlinson became convinced that public broadcasting disproportionately represented liberal perspectives on political issues, a view that many conservatives shared despite insistence by reporters of their journalistic independence.

One of Mr. Tomlinson’s most controversial moves involved Bill Moyers, a prominent broadcast journalist, commentator and former aide in the Democratic administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Without informing the CPB board, Mr. Tomlinson engaged a consultant to monitor the political views represented on the show “Now With Bill Moyers.”

He once told The Washington Post that, having come from small-town America, he was particularly offended by what he regarded as an unbalanced depiction on Moyers’s show about the effects of free-trade policies on U.S. communities.

Moyers charged that Mr. Tomlinson had “waged a surreptitious and relentless campaign against ‘Now’ ” and against him.

“I always knew [President Richard M.] Nixon would be back,” Moyers said at the time. “I just didn’t know that this time he would ask to be chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

Mr. Tomlinson promoted a show featuring conservative commentators from the Wall Street Journal called “The Journal Editorial Report.”

“Law requires a diversity of opinions,” Mr. Tomlinson said in written congressional testimony in 2005. “There is an important audience for the liberal advocacy journalism that is Bill Moyers. The law, however, requires CPB to encourage balance when such programming is presented.”

In November 2005, Mr. Tomlinson stepped down from the CPB board. The same month, officials released a review by the CPB inspector general, who faulted Mr. Tomlinson for recruiting a former chairman of the Republican National Committee to be CPB president and chief executive.

It also cited his close involvement in “The Journal Editorial Report.” As a board member, Mr. Tomlinson was prohibited from participating in the development of programming.

When Mr. Tomlinson resigned, the board said in a statement that he had not “acted maliciously or with any intent to harm C.P.B. or public broadcasting.”

“This is not a controversy that I brought to public broadcasting,” Mr. Tomlinson had once remarked. “There is an element within public broadcasting that brought this controversy on itself.”

From 2002 to 2007, he served as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees organizations such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

In 2006, a State Department inquiry found that he had hired a friend as a contractor and used government resources to run a horse-racing operation. Mr. Tomlinson defended his acquaintance’s professional contributions and said that his involvement with the horses consisted of one e-mail per day and less than three minutes per day.

Mr. Tomlinson said that he was “proud of what I have accomplished for U.S. international broadcasting,” and that the inquiry had been “inspired by partisan divisions inside the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”

Kenneth Young Tomlinson was born Aug. 3, 1944, in Mount Airy, N.C., and grew up in Grayson County, Va. His father was killed in a mill accident, and his mother supported the family by running a hair salon from her garage, according to Mr. Tomlinson’s son.

In 1966, Mr. Tomlinson received a bachelor’s degree in history from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch before joining Readers Digest. In addition to his broadcasting posts, he served as chairman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Rebecca Moore Tomlinson of Middleburg, Va.; two sons, Will Tomlinson of West Hartford, Conn., and Lucas Y. Tomlinson of Alexandria, Va.; and a sister.

On at least one occasion, Mr. Tomlinson was accused of having a liberal bias. In 1993, Reader’s Digest featured a story titled “Does Oliver North Tell the Truth?” The article was critical of North, who figured prominently in the Iran-contra scandal and at the time was pursuing the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia.

Mr. Tomlinson told the Times that the magazine received 50,000 letters from readers who no longer wished to read the magazine. North also canceled his subscription.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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