The CPB inspector general’s harshly critical report on Kenneth Tomlinson is not the only scrutiny the former CPB Board chairman is facing. Tomlinson is also under investigation by the State Department Inspector General’s Office for what he’s done as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Meanwhile, two other agencies overseen by the BBG are embroiled in controversies both public and private. The fledgling Arab-language TV channel Alhurra is the subject of three separate government investigations (by the State Department, a House International Relations subcommittee and the Government Accountability Office). And journalists at Voice of America are assailing their BBG-appointed boss for trying to tilt news stories more favorably toward the Bush administration.
The BBG is an independent federal agency that oversees VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and all other nonmilitary international broadcasting, including the controversial Alhurra TV, launched in February 2004 to serve as a counterpoint to Al-Jazeera programming.
New York Times reporter Stephen Labaton, who covered the CPB conflict intensively, first reported the State Department investigation of Tomlinson Nov. 5, citing unidentified sources involved in the inquiry. According to the Times, the allegations involve misuse of federal money and the use of nonexistent or unqualified employees.
Investigators have seized records and e-mails between Tomlinson and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove, the paper said. Both Rove and Tomlinson served on the BBG’s predecessor, the Board for International Broadcasting, in the 1990s.
Tomlinson declined to comment on the investigation, according to a BBG spokesperson.
The inquiry began in July, the Times reported, after Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) forwarded allegations to the State Department. The newspaper reported last week that Dodd had also sent President Bush a letter asking him to consider ordering Tomlinson to step down from the BBG until the investigation is finished.
Dodd’s and Berman’s press secretaries said they are not releasing the information given to the State Department.
Radio Sawa audit never published
Tomlinson testified on Capitol Hill Nov. 10 in his capacity as BBG chairman, but that hearing was for an investigation into Alhurra management. The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was examining the 20-month-old satellite service’s procurement and hiring practices. Critics have charged that the news coverage by Alhurra does not meet the rigorous editorial standards of other government-funded news agencies, such as VOA, and that its viewer estimates are inflated.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said at the hearing that the panel would look into Alhurra’s outsourcing of Mideast coverage to the Associated Press Television Network and to its granting of a multimillion-dollar no-bid support contract to a Beirut-based company.
Tomlinson and Alhurra News Director Mouafac Harb told the subcommittee that much of the questionable spending was due to the rush to get Alhurra up and running within six months of receiving funding.
“Alhurra is on the air and doing an excellent job at a fraction of the cost of other news operations,” Tomlinson told the panel.
In addition to the House investigation of Alhurra, the State Department IG and the GAO are also looking into the spending habits of the network. Tomlinson told the House panel that those investigations came at the request of the BBG.
State Department spokesman Justin Higgins described the IG’s audit of Alhurra as routine. “For over a year, the IG’s long-term work plan has included an audit of Alhurra. Following discussion with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the IG decided to commence with the audit later this month. It’s a routine review of procurements, controls and contracts,” he said.
Higgins refused to comment on the reported IG probe of Tomlinson—or even confirm one was under way.
Although Tomlinson said the BBG requested the Alhurra audit, the BBG was apparently not so welcoming of a similar State IG investigation made last year into Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language service begun in 2002. The critical report was never published; the State Department said it was because an outside evaluator raised questions about its accuracy. However, the Washington Post reported last year that the BBG interfered with IG interviews and quoted a source saying the IG office “was buckling under pressure and would water down the conclusions.” The National Journal and the American Prospect reported more recently that the BBG pressured the IG office to shelve the report altogether in December 2004.
A State Department spokeswoman told Current that although the formal report was never issued, the IG office did send a letter to the BBG that outlined “matters of consideration” that had been raised in the original draft.
According to Alan Heil, a former deputy director of VOA until his retirement in 1998, the audit staff for international broadcasting was abolished two months after the report was shelved by Cameron Hume, acting IG (since replaced by the current IG Howard Krongard).
“The action occurred absent any congressional approval of the restructuring, a break from tradition in State IG reorganizations,” said Heil.
Voices of rebellion at VOA
Tomlinson and the BBG are also criticized by VOA staffers for appointing a former Defense Department employee, David Jackson, as VOA director in 2002.
VOA, as stipulated in its 1976 charter, is supposed to be an independent, objective news agency, yet many reporters feel that Jackson is meddling with news coverage, particularly of the Iraq War, to make it more favorable to the Bush administration.
In July 2004, 450 VOA employees, representing nearly half the staff, sent a petition to Congress protesting Jackson’s reassignment of Andre de Nesnera from his post as director of VOA Central News and criticizing other service and staff cuts. It urged Congress to investigate the actions of the BBG. Although the action was widely reported in the media, nothing came of the petition.
Jackson was the subject of a scathing article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs by Sanford Ungar, who had Jackson’s job during the Clinton administration. In the article and a follow-up the next month, Ungar, a former host of All Things Considered who is now president of Goucher College in Baltimore, cited e-mail directives from Jackson urging the news division to stop reporting on car bombings and terror attacks and do “positive stories” that stressed U.S. successes in Iraq.
Jackson worked for a Defense Department website before taking over the VOA and was a Time correspondent for two decades. In an e-mail to the staff shortly after the articles appeared and obtained by Current, he denied telling editors to do positive stories and defended his news handling. “I told the newsroom that we could use the wire services to cover the bombings; what VOA needed to provide value to our audiences were stories the wire stories weren’t covering,” he wrote.
Jackson “doesn’t respect the boundaries between the journalistic correspondents of VOA and political parties,” Ungar said last week. “He behaves as if VOA has a role promoting government policies rather than reporting what’s happening. He may not mean to, but he must be naive if he doesn’t see that people in the newsroom are overwhelmingly quite alarmed.”
As recently as last week, reporters were complaining about the shift away from objectivity. In an e-mail obtained by Current that was circulating within the VOA newsroom, TV reporter Carolyn Weaver wrote, “I just glanced at the website and saw that five of nine ‘stories’ headlined on the front page are ‘Rice says’ or ‘Rice denounces’ or ‘U.S. Envoy Hughes visits.’ This makes VOA News look like a State Department megaphone.”
Tim Shamble, president of the local American Federation of Government Employees, the union to which VOA staffers belong, said, “What I’ve heard—I don’t have any proof—but I do know and can state is that employees have raised concerns that the news has been slanted and there is pressure to slant it in favor of the administration.”