Is public broadcasting a nest of left-wing biases? Ken Tomlinson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public television and radio, was so concerned about the alleged leftward drift of programs on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service that the CPB chairman persuaded his agency to hire not one but two ombudsmen to review and critique NPR and PBS news segments.
So what kind of slanted reporting have Ken Bode and William Schulz uncovered since they began work three months ago?
As it turns out, not much. Actually, as it turns out, none at all.
Instead, Bode and Schulz have been positively glowing in their assessments of the journalism heard on NPR and seen on news shows distributed by PBS. So glowing, in fact, that Schulz and Bode's reports, which are posted on CPB's Web site (www.cpb.org/ombudsmen/reports.html), could easily be excerpted in the shorthand style of a movie ad quoting favorable reviews. To wit:
"First-rate. . . . Insightful interviews. . . . In all, two excellent reports." -- Schulz on NPR's reporting from Mosul, Iraq, in late April.
"Excellent. . . . Informative. . . . These two reports gave a nuanced and balanced view of the situation. . . . Kudos to the producers, reporters and editors." -- Bode, on the same stories.
"An excellent curtain raiser!" -- Bode on an NPR report about an upcoming court-martial of a Marine accused of murdering two Iraqis.
"High praise to Mississippi Public Television for an important job well done, and for ably fulfilling its mission of public service to the state." -- Bode on coverage of the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, the former Ku Klux Klan member accused and convicted in the death of three civil rights workers.
"TV at its best." -- Schulz on the three-part PBS series "The Appalachians."
Neither ombudsman mentions a lack of "balance" -- a frequent Tomlinson criticism -- in the programs reviewed. Indeed, neither comments one way or the other about the political leanings of the few programs that were reviewed.
Tomlinson was so exercised by the supposed liberal leanings of the PBS show "Now With Bill Moyers" that he pushed PBS to create two conservative-oriented programs, "The Journal Editorial Report" (featuring Wall Street Journal editorial writers) and "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered" as counterweights. He also advocated creating the two ombudsmen's positions, largely over the objections of NPR, which has its own ombudsman, and PBS, which said last month it would add its own. That makes four ombudsmen overseeing public broadcasting.
Schulz is a former colleague of Tomlinson's; they worked together for years as editors at Reader's Digest. Bode is a former CNN and NBC News reporter who hosted the PBS program "Washington Week in Review" for five years. The two men are paid $50,000 a year each for working 25 hours a month.
Bode said yesterday that the two ombudsmen were never intended to be liberal and conservative halves. "When I took the job," he said, "I took it as a job of journalism, not one of politics. I've never had a conversation with Ken Tomlinson" about his political leanings.
Some have questioned whether Bode fits a "liberal" role, in any case. He endorsed Indiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels last year, and he is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank that often advocates conservative policies.
When he took the part-time job earlier this year, Bode said he didn't believe there were major balance issues at PBS or NPR. "There's no 'O'Reilly Factor' on PBS, and no 'Crossfire,' " he said. But since Tomlinson's comments on the matter fueled controversy about fairness, Bode is taking another look at the issue. He said he intends to weigh in during the next few weeks.
Said Schulz: "It's far too early for me, at least, to come to a conclusion about overall balance, or in individual programs. That will become more apparent as we listen more and watch more." Moyers, who had publicly feuded with Tomlinson, left "Now" for unrelated reasons at the end of last year, but is returning tonight as host of "Wide Angle," a series featuring international documentaries.
Asked about the ombudsmen's work yesterday, Tomlinson said it reflected the fact that "the vast majority of [public broadcast] programming is pretty good." He said the ombudsman positions were created so that members of Congress or "John Q. Public" would have "a serious place to turn" in the event of controversy.
Tomlinson himself came in for some criticism yesterday during a Senate subcommittee hearing about public broadcasting. A bipartisan panel that is considering CPB's funding request for next fiscal year took Tomlinson to task for his hiring of an Indiana consultant, Frederick W. Mann, who was paid about $14,000 last year to study the political leanings of guests on various NPR and PBS public affairs show. Democrats and people who produced the programs have attacked the study as flawed. Some have suggested it was part of a political witch hunt. But Tomlinson defended it as means to document the need for diverse viewpoints.
Tomlinson also was criticized by Democratic lawmakers for spending about $10,000 to hire two GOP consultants last year to gauge congressional opinions about legislation to change the way the agency's board was comprised. "Why not just pick up the phone and call us?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "You could have saved $10,000."
Tomlinson replied that the hiring was a fairly routine practice at CPB and was done with the knowledge of the agency's then-chief executive, Robert Coonrod, who acknowledged this yesterday.
Both Tomlinson and the CPB's new president, former Republican National Committee co-chairwoman Patricia Harrison, advocated that the Senate restore funding cuts made by the House in its budget bill. They got a vote of support from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who said at the hearing that he would work for full funding.