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."
Several public broadcasting officials point with cynicism to Tomlinson's other Washington role: He is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other federally funded outlets that broadcast government-sponsored news and information around the world.
How, some ask, can a man so intimately involved in the Bush administration's efforts to polish its image put politics aside when it comes to running the CPB, an agency created by Congress in 1967 expressly to give public broadcasting "maximum protection from extraneous [political] interference and control."
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the start of the Iraq war, for example, Tomlinson touted the BBG's role in disseminating information that provided support for an attack. He praised Radio Sawa -- a federally-funded Arabic-language service -- for broadcasting then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations about Iraq's weapons programs as well as other programs that "re-examined the evidence supporting America's case against Saddam Hussein."
Tomlinson's critics see another political connection at work, too: Tomlinson, a former head of the Voice of America during the Reagan administration, served with President Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, on the board of a forerunner of the BBG during the 1990s.
Tomlinson denies any White House influence over his actions and sees no conflict in his dual chairmanships.
"All I'm trying to do is advocate that both sides be fairly represented" in news programs, he said. "There is a perception among a lot of politically sophisticated people that that balance is not always there."Facts and Figures
It is unclear, however, how widespread that perception is. A 2003 survey, commissioned by CPB, of self-described "news and information consumers" found that 36 percent of respondents considered PBS's news coverage of the Bush administration "fair and balanced," while 46 percent offered no opinion.
Moreover, says NPR President Kevin Klose, NPR is among the few major broadcast outlets whose audience has been growing in recent years, with listenership approaching 22 million people a week.
"I think that says the American people understand and support the integrity, credibility, balance and objectivity of NPR's programming," he said.
But Tomlinson dismisses CPB's own findings about public attitudes. "Polls are essentially meaningless in the absence of public [scrutiny]," he says. He compares the surveys to a presidential poll taken long before the news media and electorate have begun to focus on who are the candidates.
Pressed repeatedly for examples of public broadcasting bias, Tomlinson cited only one program that he found objectionable: Moyers's show, "Now." (Moyers left the program in December, but the show is still on the air with a new host.) Tomlinson's animus for Moyers's program was such that he hired a consultant last year to track the political leanings of his guests on "Now." That decision prompted two congressmen, John Dingell (D-Mich.) and David Obey (D-Wis.), to request an investigation by the CPB's inspector general this month to ascertain whether Tomlinson had become "a source of political interference into public broadcasting" rather than "a shield" against such interference, as Congress intended.
Tomlinson says two other broadcasts were brought to his attention for their alleged bias by lawmakers:
· Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) took exception last year to a discussion of oil drilling in the state's Arctic wilderness during a three-part PBS documentary series called "Extreme Oil." The complaint led to an exchange of explanatory letters between CPB and PBS, and the controversy seems to have quieted. Stevens chairs the Senate committee that authorizes funds for CPB.
· Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), echoing long-standing complaints by a media watchdog group, expressed concerns about NPR's coverage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in early 2003. Sherman felt the network's coverage was unfair to the Israeli government's point of view, according to a representative from his office. NPR agreed at the time to audit its reporting, but Sherman in November asked CPB to conduct its own review. So far, there's been no response from CPB, according to the congressman's office.
Tomlinson's background suggests a man who is competitive and driven, rather than combative and ideological. He and a sister were raised by their mother after his father died in a mill accident when Tomlinson was 5. After a brief stint as a reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the mid-1960s, Tomlinson joined the Reader's Digest and became its editor in chief by the age of 45, despite taking two years off in the early 1980s to run the Voice of America under President Ronald Reagan. He retired from the Digest at 52, intending to spend time on his Middleburg farm, where he raises thoroughbred racehorses.
Service on the CPB board is effectively a voluntary position, with board members' compensation capped at $10,000 a year. Records show that Tomlinson earned $6,112 last year.Moyers's Message
Top officials at NPR and PBS are loath to criticize Tomlinson openly, given his position as chief advocate for federal support. In an interview, Mitchell, PBS president, spoke cordially of Tomlinson but defended Moyers's program, saying, "It reached out to a broad spectrum of people and points of view." (Moyers will reappear on PBS this summer in a new program called "Wide Angle.") As for Tomlinson's criticism of PBS as left-leaning, Mitchell says, "I regret that he feels that way, but I respectfully disagree with him and so does the public. Every survey that has been taken, including Mr. Tomlinson's, shows that the American public feels we are a fair and objective source of news and information."
For his part, Moyers -- a onetime press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson whose progressive views have sometimes made him a target of the right -- has much stronger words for Tomlinson. In a speech to a media conference in St. Louis on Sunday, Moyers compared Tomlinson to Richard Nixon, who perceived public broadcasting's news reporting as unfair in the early 1970s and tried to cut its federal funding.
"I always knew Nixon would be back," Moyers said, according to a news service account of his speech. "I just didn't know that this time he would ask to be chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
It's not clear how widely shared that sentiment is within the highly decentralized and largely autonomous public TV and radio system. But some station managers this week began internal discussions about reforming CPB to give stations greater say in their governance, according to sources.
One station manager, Bill Reed, president and CEO of KCPT-TV in Kansas City, Mo., late last week sent a letter to Tomlinson that was widely distributed among station managers. It said, in part, "For you and members of the CPB board to go on this sad, ridiculous witch hunt at a time when we should be standing together to make sure that public broadcasting is funded adequately is a betrayal of your responsibilities as a board member. You and those board members who support you should be sacked."
Tomlinson says his goal is to seek both liberal and conservative support for public broadcasting -- and thus more federal funding of it. Although he notes that "a lot of my friends are against [any] taxpayer support," he said he disagrees and is working "for the health of public broadcasting."
To ensure that, he added, "people in public broadcasting would be very wise to work on the perceptions that they leave."