Signals Crossed at the CPB

Sunday, November 27, 2005

THE CORPORATION for Public Broadcasting is supposed to act as a two-layered heat shield -- both to prevent political interference with public broadcasting and to ensure balance and objectivity in publicly funded programs. A report from the corporation's inspector general illustrates that former CPB chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson repeatedly -- and dangerously -- departed from the first goal in pursuit of the second. Mr. Tomlinson was ousted from the board after it received the inspector general's report, but his departure isn't all that's needed: The report should serve as a wake-up call for the corporation to reform itself.

Mr. Tomlinson had made it his mission at CPB, which distributes about $400 million in federal funding for public television and radio, to root out what he perceived -- with justification in some cases -- to be a liberal bias in its programming. Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz's report details how Mr. Tomlinson's concern about politicization failed to extend to his own actions, which violated the organization's rules and federal law.

It found that Mr. Tomlinson was in touch with the White House about "shaking up CPB" and that "political tests" were a major factor in choosing the corporation's current president, former Republican National Committee chairman Patricia Harrison, despite the statutory prohibition against considering political ties. "Specifically," the report said, "we identified e-mails between the former Chairman and staff in the Executive Office of the President that, while cryptic in nature," give "the appearance that the former Chairman was strongly motivated by political considerations in filling the President/CEO position." According to The Post's Paul Farhi, the White House officials included White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

Moreover, according to the report, Mr. Tomlinson made extensive efforts to develop and promote the conservative "Journal Editorial Report," featuring Wall Street Journal commentators -- despite federal law barring board members from being involved in program development.

A separate, disturbing element of the report concerns severance payments for the corporation's previous president, Kathleen A. Cox, who was forced to resign after clashing with Mr. Tomlinson -- who, Ms. Cox said, told her she was "not political enough." Ms. Cox's $400,000 severance deal was three times her annual salary -- and set up in such a way that the total wouldn't appear in public records.

"Our review found an organizational environment that allowed the former chairman and other CPB executives to operate without appropriate checks and balances," the report concluded. To their credit, CPB officials, including chairman Cheryl F. Halpern, have not disputed the findings -- Ms. Halpern called them "bracing" -- but instead have acted to implement recommendations to remove some of the managerial sloppiness that contributed to the corporation's missteps.

Mr. Tomlinson, a former Reader's Digest editor who continues to serve as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the U.S. government's international programming, termed the report a triumph of "politics over good judgment." That assessment could better be applied to Mr. Tomlinson himself.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company