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Monday, May 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.


Chairman rocks public television

The Washington Post


Kenneth 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 (PBS) show "Now," talk about how free-trade policies had harmed small-town America. Tomlinson knows small-town America — he grew up outside tiny Galax, in the Blue Ridge Mountains — and Moyers' 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 public-radio airwaves.

And so began an effort that in recent weeks has begun to rip through the 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 (CPB), he heads a private but congressionally chartered agency that hands out federal money — $387 million this year — to PBS, National Public Radio (NPR) and hundreds of public radio and TV stations throughout the country.

Tomlinson's contention — that 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 Tomlinson isn't really interested in fairness so much as promoting conservative ideas.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

A private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967. It is not a government agency.

Most corporation-funded television programs are distributed through the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Corporation-funded radio programs are distributed primarily through National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Radio International (PRI). CPB created PBS in 1969 and NPR in 1970.

Federal appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will be about $387 million this year. About 90 percent of this money is passed directly to public radio and TV stations, which then pay fees to PBS, NPR and PRI for programming such as "Nova" and "All Things Considered."

The Washington Post and Corporation for Public Broadcasting

The soft-spoken Tomlinson expresses surprise at the reaction. "I never started out to make a campaign of this," he said last week, sitting in corporation offices across from the FBI Building in downtown Washington. But he added that the resistance he has encountered, particularly from PBS President Pat Mitchell about Moyers' 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."

Multiple roles

In recent months, Tomlinson has championed, and the corporation has funded, a new weekly program on PBS called "The Journal Editorial Report," featuring conservative columnists from The Wall Street Journal. He also has 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 corporation's board by President Clinton in 2000 and was named chairman by President Bush in September 2003, also has caused unease within public-broadcasting circles with a series of recent hires.

The most controversial was the announcement in early April that he 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, the corporation's chief executive — Kathleen Cox, a longtime agency employee widely considered a nonpartisan bureaucrat — was replaced, on an interim basis, by Ken Ferree, a Republican who was a top media adviser to former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell.

Ferree got off to a slow start when he told a magazine interviewer that he didn't watch PBS or listen to NPR.

The Ferree appointment followed the dismissals or departures in recent months of at least three other senior corporation officials, all of whom had Democratic affiliations.

"We don't want to be alarmist, but I would be less than honest if I said there wasn't concern here," said one senior executive at PBS, who insisted on anonymity. "When you put it all together, a pattern starts to emerge."

A senior FCC official, who would not speak for attribution because he rules on issues affecting public broadcasting, went further, saying in April that the CPB "is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated."

At the time, Tomlinson called such comments "paranoia" and said critics of the corporation's initiatives should "grow up."

The Ferree appointment also followed the corporation's hiring in late March of a White House communications officer as a "special adviser" to the corporation's chief executive with responsibility for overseeing the ombudsmen.

Tomlinson vigorously denied 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.

In negotiations with PBS earlier this year, the corporation also insisted, for the first time, on tying new funding to an agreement that would commit the network to strict "objectivity and balance" in each of its programs, an idea that PBS' general counsel described in an internal memo as amounting to "government encroachment on and supervision of program content, potentially in violation of the First Amendment."

Tomlinson and the corporation have relatively limited direct influence over what's seen and heard on PBS and NPR. The corporation cannot, for example, force either service to air a program the agency underwrites. The agency provides less than 10 percent of PBS' annual budget and less than 1 percent of NPR's. But the agency is a vital source of funding for the larger PBS.

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, the corporation provides critical 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. Some public-broadcasting executives became wary of him after the election last fall, when Tomlinson supposedly 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 Tomlinson denied saying it, even in jest.

Several public-broadcasting officials pointed 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 throughout 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 Broadcasting Board of Governors' role in disseminating information that provided support for an attack. He praised Radio Sawa — a U.S. government-funded Arabic-language service — for broadcasting then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations about Iraq's weapons programs and 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 Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, on the board of a forerunner of the Broadcasting Board of Governors during the 1990s.

Tomlinson denied any White House influence over his actions and sees no conflict in his dual chairmanships. "There is a perception among a lot of politically sophisticated people that that balance is not always there," he said.

Complaints of bias

It is unclear, however, how widespread that perception is. A 2003 survey of self-described "news and information consumers" commissioned by the corporation found that 36 percent of respondents considered PBS news coverage of the Bush administration "fair and balanced," while 46 percent offered no opinion.

Moreover, NPR President Kevin Klose said 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 dismissed the corporation's own findings. "Polls are essentially meaningless in the absence of public [scrutiny]," he said. He compared the surveys to a presidential poll taken long before the news media and electorate have begun to focus on who the candidates are.

Pressed repeatedly for examples of public-broadcasting bias, Tomlinson cited only one program he found objectionable: Moyers' show "Now." (Moyers left the program in December, but the show is on the air with a new host).

Tomlinson's animus for Moyers' program was such that he hired a consultant last year to track the political leanings of guests on "Now." Tomlinson said two other broadcasts were brought to his attention by lawmakers for alleged bias:

• Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, took exception last year to a discussion of oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness in "Extreme Oil," a three-part PBS documentary series. 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 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in early 2003. Sherman said 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 Sherman'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 Reader's Digest and became its editor in chief by age 45, despite taking two years off in the early 1980s to run the Voice of America under Reagan. He retired from the Digest at 52, intending to spend time on his Middleburg, Va., 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.

Top officials at NPR and PBS are loath to criticize Tomlinson openly, given his position as chief advocate for federal support. Mitchell, PBS president, spoke cordially of Tomlinson but defended Moyers' 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 said, "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."

For his part, Moyers — a onetime press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson whose progressive views have sometimes made him a target of the right — has stronger words for Tomlinson.

In a speech to a media conference in St. Louis on May 15, Moyers compared Tomlinson to Richard Nixon, who perceived public broadcasting's 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 service. But some station managers last 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 chief executive of KCPT-TV in Kansas City, Mo., late last week sent a letter to Tomlinson: "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 said his goal is to seek liberal and conservative support for public broadcasting — and thus more federal funding.

Although he noted 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."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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