A Different Reception For Public Broadcasting

Critics see political influence behind CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson's moves.
Critics see political influence behind CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson's moves. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson remembers exactly when it was and what he was watching when the thought struck him: Public television has a problem. A liberal problem.

It was November 2003, and he was watching Bill Moyers, host of the Public Broadcasting Service show "Now," talk about how free-trade policies had harmed small-town America. Tomlinson knows small-town America -- he grew up outside tiny Galax, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains -- and Moyers's presentation of the issues struck him as superficial and one-sided. Indeed, it struck him as "liberal advocacy journalism." Right then, Tomlinson said, he decided it was time to bring some "balance" to the public TV and radio airwaves.

And so began an effort that in recent weeks has begun to tear like a knife through the insular world of public broadcasting. For Tomlinson, 60, isn't just any conservative with a complaint about liberal media bias. As chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he heads a private but congressionally chartered agency that hands out federal funds -- $387 million this year -- to PBS, National Public Radio and hundreds of public radio and TV stations around the country.

Tomlinson's contention -- liberalism is too prominent on public TV, radio news and talk programs while conservative ideas are marginalized -- has been met with aggressive denials, concern and suspicion within the public broadcasting establishment. Some suggest that Tomlinson isn't really interested in fairness as much as promoting conservative ideas.

Bearded and roly-poly, the friendly, soft-spoken Tomlinson expresses surprise at the reaction his initiatives have received. "I never started out to make a campaign of this," he said this week, sitting in CPB's offices across from the FBI Building in downtown Washington. But he added that the resistance he's encountered, particularly from PBS President Pat Mitchell about Moyers's program, is "symbolic of the tone-deafness" and "intellectual dishonesty" of public broadcasting's leadership.

"This is not a controversy that I brought to public broadcasting," Tomlinson said. "There is an element within public broadcasting that brought this controversy on itself."

On-Air Moves, Off-Air Hires

In recent months, Tomlinson has championed, and CPB has funded, a new weekly program on PBS called "The Journal Editorial Report," featuring conservative columnists from the Wall Street Journal. He also advocated for the creation of another PBS-distributed show, "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered," hosted by the conservative TV commentator. (Carlson will be leaving the program for MSNBC next month.)

Tomlinson, who was appointed to the CPB board by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and was named chairman by President Bush in September 2003, has also caused unease within public broadcasting circles with a series of recent hires. The most controversial was CPB's announcement in early April that it was hiring two ombudsmen -- one a conservative, the other liberal -- to monitor and critique NPR and PBS news programs. The move surprised and unsettled officials at PBS and at NPR, which already has an ombudsman.

A few days later, CPB's chief executive -- a longtime agency employee widely considered a nonpartisan bureaucrat -- was replaced, on an interim basis, by a Republican who was a top media adviser to former Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell. (The new interim executive, Ken Ferree, got off to a rough start when he told a magazine interviewer that he didn't watch PBS or listen to NPR.)

This followed CPB's hiring in late March of a White House communications officer as a "special adviser" to the chief executive, with responsibility for overseeing the ombudsmen. Tomlinson vigorously denies published reports that the new adviser, Mary Catherine Andrews, helped draft guidelines for the ombudsmen's job while she was working at the White House.

Tomlinson and CPB have relatively limited direct influence over what's seen and heard on PBS and NPR. CPB cannot, for example, force either service to air a program the agency underwrites. The agency provides less than 10 percent of PBS's annual budget and less than 1 percent of NPR's. But CPB is a vital source of funding for the larger public broadcasting system. Its grants to public radio and TV stations find their way back to NPR and PBS in the form of station programming fees. What's more, CPB provides crucial seed money for a number of PBS shows, such as "Sesame Street," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and "Washington Week in Review."

As such, Tomlinson's comments are closely watched within the system. Some public broadcasting executives became wary after the election last fall, when Tomlinson allegedly told a gathering of PBS and station executives in Baltimore that the country had moved rightward and that public broadcasting should reflect that. The account was confirmed by Mitchell, but in the interview Tomlinson denied saying it, even in jest. Asked about it this week, a PBS spokeswoman said, "We stand by Pat's characterization of his comments."

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