Exec's political bias cited in public broadcasting probe

By Reuters

Nov 16, 2005

"In his zeal to force conservative views onto the public airwaves, the former head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting interfered with PBS programming decisions and may have required the corporation's new president to pass 'political tests,'" an internal investigation revealed.

Kenneth Tomlinson, a Republican, also sought to withhold funding from PBS unless the taxpayer-supported network "balanced their programming" with more conservative voices, according to the report released Tuesday by CPB inspector general Kenneth Konz.

Tomlinson was chairman of the corporation until September, and he resigned as a board member this month after Konz privately shared his findings with the board. CPB said it was taking action to prevent a recurrence, setting up a corporate governance committee and an executive compensation committee.

"These are bold and decisive actions to respond to important issues," CPB chairman Cheryl Halpern said. "The board is unified in its views and in its determination to take meaningful steps to maintain and strengthen public confidence in public broadcasting."

The major government underwriter for programming aired on PBS and public radio, the CPB was established in 1967 to shield public broadcasting from political influence.

RULE VIOLATION

According to Konz's report, there is evidence that suggests that "political tests" or qualifications were used as a major factor in the hiring of new CPB president Patricia Harrison, also in violation of federal rules.

Tomlinson has defended his actions as an effort to bring political balance to public-affairs programming and maintained no wrongdoing as corporation chairman.

Although the report was critical of Tomlinson's efforts, there was enough blame to go around, according to Konz, who said he "found an organizational environment that allowed the former chairman and other CPB executives to operate without appropriate checks and balances."

Many factors helped to create this environment, Konz said, including:
-The lack of specificity in CPB bylaws regarding the roles and responsibilities of the board and management;
-Top management's attitude toward internal controls; and
-A lack of transparency in decision-making within the board, between CPB leadership and the board and within CPB's management structure.

Tomlinson is under investigation by the CPB inspector general for paying outside groups, some with GOP ties, to decide if programming like "Now With Bill Moyers" has a liberal or anti-White House slant. Many of the contracts were approved without board consent. Tomlinson also pushed PBS to develop the "Journal Editorial Report," hosted by conservative Wall Street Journal editor Paul Gigot.

MANAGEMENT VACUUM

"A runaway chairman apparently took advantage of a lackadaisical board of directors, and a curious absence of basic management and was allowed to inject politics into the work of the corporation," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, the House Commerce Committee's senior Democrat.

Dingell and Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, asked Konz to investigate.

"The report shows that Mr. Tomlinson was willing to ride roughshod over the law to impose his political mind-set on PBS programming," Obey said. "The Corporation for Public Broadcasting needs significant reform and vigorous oversight to preserve the political neutrality that Mr. Tomlinson pretended he wanted but did so much to prevent."

John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, said the report proves that Tomlinson was out of control.

"The problem comes down to the actions of a rogue chairman," Lawson said, adding that the report should be viewed as a cautionary tale.

"It casts light on the need for the White House to ensure that future appointees have a high understanding of journalism and the role of an important cultural institution like CPB," he said.

CALL FOR NEW LEADERSHIP

The report led some public-interest groups to call for the resignation of Harrison and other board members.

Free Press, the Center for Digital Democracy and Common Cause, called for Harrison's resignation.

"The inspector general's report documents the unnecessary and inappropriate politicization of public broadcasting," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Through a series of covert and overt activities, the CPB board has helped undermine the foundation of public broadcasting. But Mr. Tomlinson shouldn't be singled out as the lone culprit here. All of the board is responsible, as are top CPB executives past and present. The CPB needs new leaders untarnished by this sordid episode."

Lawmakers weren't willing to go that far, instead signaling that they are ready to give the board a chance to make changes that will prevent similar action in the future.

"Now the board needs to get tough or get out," Dingell said. "The board members, regardless of their political affiliation, must put in strong management controls and enforce them so that the credibility of public broadcasting is not further diminished."

Harrison also has some support from people in the public broadcasting community, Lawson said.

"We are not calling for Pat's resignation," Lawson said. "She has impressed a lot of people in our community who think she is righting the ship."

  • Comments (3)
Add a Comment
In reply to :
  • TvForeva Nov 17, 2005

    Perhaps the Republican Party will want to destroy NPR and PBS if they can't control them from within.

    This is not my personal opinion.

  • Ryuukuro Nov 17, 2005

    It's obvious that PBS has a liberal bias but I've always felt that a lot of it had to do with the fact that liberals, like myself, are more attracted to the mission and nature of public broadcasting. I don't think many conservatives would look to PBS for the same things except to combat "the liberal menace" and that's a shame. If Tomlinson just promoted more conservative friendly programming he would have done a good job but to try and bully a doggedly liberal institution the way he did using discriminatory tactics shows that he wasn't interested in fairness but his own agenda. His failure, therefore, is no surprise.

  • ajonespr Nov 16, 2005

    I couldn't be more pleased that Kenneth Tomlinson has been ousted from PBS and that a full investigation into the PBS board, its lack of governance and compliance with Federal laws and regulations is now being undertaken.

    I'm a big fan of PBS, and its sister media, NPR, because both are bastions of free and unfettered political discourse, now sadly lacking in the major broadcasters.

    Adrienne Jones
    An American Abroad (Resident of Canada)