After a week as target of dark accusations and suspicions, Ken Tomlinson was weary. “We’ve all said what we had to say,” the CPB Board chairman told Current. “Let’s all declare victory and move on.”
That may make sense to many public broadcasters, but Tomlinson’s critics aren’t likely to give the issue a rest.
CPB’s independent inspector general, Kenneth Konz, said he will investigate charges by two key House Democrats that Tomlinson violated the Public Broadcasting Act by commissioning a political content review of Now with Bill Moyers and recruiting a White House staff member to write guidelines for CPB’s new ombudsmen.
In St. Louis last weekend, CPB was a major topic among media reform activists at the National Conference for Media Reform, organized by Free Press, a citizen group founded by media historian Robert McChesney. Free Press, Common Cause, Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America had already announced they will lead a campaign for grassroots reform of PBS to create a system “that deserves public support.”
If the controversy flags, it’s sure to revive next year if Tomlinson seeks reappointment to the board, which requires Senate confirmation. His term expires in fall 2006.
The danger to public broadcasting is that the partisan struggle will continue, poisoning CPB’s reputation and perhaps public TV’s.
CPB’s drive for political balance on the air could lead to a public or private showdown with PBS over editorial standards. The corporation’s annual production aid to PBS, worth $26.5 million next year, will depend on its approval of the PBS standards on balance and other journalistic issues, now being reviewed by a panel of outside journalists.
Further conflict could be expected if CPB hires Tomlinson’s reported candidate for president, Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee who is now an assistant secretary of state.
Republican complaints about liberal bias in public broadcasting programs
extend back to the Nixon administration, and some observers saw similarities
between the very first conflict over pubcasting’s editorial independence
and the latest one. Republicans “are now trying to use more sophisticated
vehicles to make sure the CPB satisfies the agenda of the administration,” said
Ted Frank, a communications attorney who has worked with public TV. “It’s
not supposed to do that.”
“It’s been cyclical, this kind of criticism of public television,”
said David Fanning, Frontline executive producer. “It’s
always focused on some particular program like Tongues Untied. The
programs become iconic and get used as political footballs.”
This time around, two programs are targets for partisan slams: Now
with Bill Moyers, which Tomlinson found to be too liberal, and Journal Editorial
Report, a half-hour roundtable with the Wall Street Journal’s
editorial page pundits. Tomlinson reportedly pressured PBS to distribute
Editorial Report, though multiple sources told Current he
had no role recruiting Shell Oil as an underwriter to keep it going after CPB’s
initial $4.5 million startup grant was spent.
Tomlinson can declare victory because he has consistently drawn his objectives
very narrowly: adding a conservative program to “balance” Moyers.
The top Democrats on the House appropriations and commerce committees,
Reps. David Obey (Wis.) and John Dingell (Mich.), say Tomlinson broke the
“Recent news reports suggesting that the CPB is making personnel and
funding decisions on the basis of political ideology are extremely troubling,” the
congressmen said in their May 11 letter to the CPB inspector general. Konz
told Current his office will investigate the various charges outlined
in the letter and report back to CPB and Congress.
The Democrats cited a May 2 New York Times report revealing Tomlinson’s
efforts to document liberal bias in Now with Bill Moyers and add conservative
programming to balance the show. The story also said he had a White House
staffer, Mary Catherine Andrews, draft guidelines for CPB’s new ombudsmen
before she had officially left the White House payroll and joined CPB’s.
Conflict within the law
Two charges in the letter point to potential violations of the Public Broadcasting
Act, according to Gary Poon, a communications attorney and former in-house
counsel for PBS who reviewed points in the letter on strictly legal terms
- Ordering up a content review of Now and using it to justify adding
programs to provide political balance, as Tomlinson says he did, would
But using the study to exclude or disadvantage Now may violate the act.
critics have not claimed he did the latter.
- Enlisting a White House staffer to do work for CPB has at least the appearance
of a conflict of interest. Section 398 of the act explicitly prohibits federal
employees from exercising “direction, supervision or control over
public telecommunications” or its program content [see box at right].
“If Andrews had a direct line to President Bush and she starts writing
standards for CPB, the White House could be doing indirectly what they couldn’t
be doing directly through CPB,” Poon said. “Congress has every
right to look into that.”
It’s unclear, Poon said, whether the act would also apply to actions
of Tomlinson, who could be found to be a federal official in his separate
appointment as chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, the panel
that governs Voice of America and other overseas broadcast agencies.
The congressional inquiry itself carries political risks, Poon says. “Congress
has to be careful so that they don’t get accused of meddling in content.”
“It may not be politically correct to anger Congressman Dingell,” he
says, “but that’s a big difference from violating the Public
Obey, a frequent critic of pubcasting, denied conservative assumptions that
he was simply defending Democrats. “What I want is to see is that the
law is adhered to,” he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! May
12, “and the law says the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed
to keep its cotton-picking nose out of programming and out of politics.”
Although the law does that, it also thrusts politics deep into CPB — a
lingering contradiction in the Public Broadcasting Act — in that the White
House appoints the CPB Board which is authorized to facilitate a system with
“strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series
of programs of a controversial nature.” Three paragraphs later, the law tells CPB to “assure maximum
freedom” for public broadcasting from interference with or control of program content. Tomlinson takes his cue from the earlier paragraph, and his critics point to the latter.
Several fights at once
Dire announcements of a “right-wing coup” taking over public
TV have exaggerated the real threat to its independence, some insiders say.
“The daily press has portrayed stations as helpless victims of a right-wing
conspiracy,” said pubTV’s top lobbyist, APTS President John Lawson. “We’re
not helpless and we’re not victims.”
CPB contributes just 15 percent of public broadcasting’s revenue,
and the corporation has little control over most of those funds, which are
dispensed as automatic grants to stations meeting certain criteria. Furthermore,
local stations, not CPB or PBS, make the broadcast decisions.
But the unseemly fuss has shaken some longtime supporters of pubcasting.
The Christian Science Monitor echoed other activists and
scribes when it suggested in its May 12 editorial [text] that public TV would
federal aid. “Wouldn’t it be better if government simply weren’t
involved? … Surely, those journalists and producers who work for PBS
would appreciate having the independence to criticize the government when
needed, without fear of political retribution,” the newspaper said.
Throwing up your hands in this way is “sort of a pathetic response” to
the controversy, Lawson said. “It’s way too early to conclude
that we can’t receive funding and maintain editorial independence at
the same time.”
Even without new doubts about federal money, pubcasting was already slated
to share the federal government’s budget pains this year. The House
subcommittee that handles appropriations for CPB and related items, as well
as massive education and welfare agencies, will have $2 billion to $4 billion
less to work with this year than last, according to APTS.
With liberals now suspicious of right-wing meddling in PTV operations,
system lobbyists are currently “catching it from both sides” on the
Hill, Lawson says. “This is a battle that we did not need.”
The partisan struggle may also obscure and taint advocacy for new public
TV services and funding mechanisms. PBS President Pat Mitchell has scheduled
a talk on public TV’s future for May 24 at the National Press Club,
and her blue-ribbon Digital Futures Initiative aims to have its report ready
Some in the system worry that damage to public TV’s editorial integrity
or reputation could severely undercut the case for those broad, long-term
At the very least, it’s a huge distraction from important issues, says
James Morgese, president of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver.
“We have to reinvent how to deliver TV, we have problems with turnover
of presidents at PBS and CPB, we have potential threats to funding,” he
says. “We’re battling a lot of monsters all at once.”
CPB’s controversy quotient began to rise last month with the surprise
announcement April 5 that it would hire two ombudsmen to monitor public affairs
programming on public TV and radio. Three days later, CPB announced it was
not renewing a one-year contract for its president, Kathleen Cox. But a team
of three New York Times reporters put Tomlinson and the agency on the front
page with the May 2 report that the chairman was pressuring PBS.
With an op-ed in the Washington Times May 10, Tomlinson tried to
ease up on the reins. His campaign to bring more conservatives into public
broadcasting was intended to strengthen the case for increased funding to
the field, he said. He didn’t want to create a public stir about the
content analysis of Now. “In our effort to achieve political
balance, I did not want to damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy,”
Balance a concern since 2000
Tomlinson joined the CPB Board in 2000—the law required President
Clinton to appoint some non-Democrats. With his arrival, the board became
and concerned with program balance, said Christy Carpenter, a Democrat who
served on the board from 1998 to 2002.
Moyers’ program, launched in January 2002, “was a favorite target
and example used in the discussion,” Carpenter said. “The overarching
idea was that there should be more conservative voices included in the programming.”
Rita Jean Butterworth, a Republican board member from 1992 to 2004, said
Now was a polarizing concern for the board but an appropriate one.
Tomlinson and others talked about how to deal with problems in assuring objectivity
and balance in programs, which is part of CPB’s charge, she said.
“I don’t believe in interference and I don’t think that’s
what Ken Tomlinson is trying to do, either,” Butterworth said. “He
was trying to do his duty and he has his own personal feelings and of course
those are going to come to the surface.”
For conservatives, plenty of feelings came to the surface after Moyers’ November
2002 commentary skewering Republicans for seizing control of the lives of
pregnant women and favoring the rich over the poor.
By spring 2003, PBS was quietly letting major producers know that it wanted
proposals for programs that would add conservative balance to the schedule.
In November, PBS announced a new Friday-night series with Tucker Carlson,
a moderate Republican combatant from CNN’s Crossfire.
The same month, CPB Board member Cheryl Halpern took a hard line on the
balance issue at her Senate confirmation hearing, telling Sen. Trent Lott
and the rest of Commerce Committee that there should be penalties when producers
create imbalanced programs.
“There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic
ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability,” she
Tomlinson, who stepped up to board chairman in September 2003, soon initiated
an outside investigation of Now without telling the rest of the board,
according to the New York Times. Moyers’ lack of objectivity
was a “widely accepted fact of life,” he commented in the Washington
Times op-ed piece. He kept his investigation of Now private
to avoid public controversy that would hurt pubcasting, he wrote.
John Siceloff, executive producer of Now, disputes Tomlinson’s
view of the program as liberal advocacy. “What we do is nonpartisan,
investigative journalism,” he said. “We start with a set of what
we call kitchen-table issues—things that folks sit around the kitchen
table and try to figure out: job security, health care, retirement, education
… These are issues
that conservatives and liberals alike understand.”
According to Tomlinson’s op-ed, a friend’s phone call persuaded
him to deal with the Moyers issue. The friend, head of a foundation that
gave a major grant for his local public TV station’s digital conversion,
said he’d stop contributing “until something was done about the
network’s bias,” he wrote.
After PBS chief Pat Mitchell responded to Tomlinson’s complaints by insisting
that Now was politically balanced, the CPB chairman said, he hired
the consultant to analyze the program.
“If I didn’t tell [the board about the investigation] it was strictly
an oversight,” Tomlinson told Current. Other CPB Board members declined
to comment or did not return calls.
“By the time I had irrefutable documentation of the program’s bias,” Tomlinson
wrote, “cooler heads among PBS leaders prevailed, Miss Mitchell herself
had been forced to add political balance to the PBS lineup, and I was satisfied
the system was moving (if ever so slowly) toward recognizing its political
Exit Coonrod, enter Cox
By 2003, the CPB Board recognized that it would lose President Bob Coonrod,
who had been trying to leave the frustrating job for several years.
Harrison, the former G.O.P. chairwoman, was offered the job, according
to sources, but opted to remain at the State Department out of loyalty
of State Colin Powell. Harrison did not respond to requests for comment.
The CPB presidency went to Kathleen Cox instead in January 2004. Coonrod’s
No. 2 was a Republican, judging from her family’s political donations,
but she was also a career attorney with seven years’ experience at
CPB and had backing from Coonrod.
Harrison has a different background. Co-founder
of the E. Bruce Harrison Co., an environmental communications firm, she
held several Commerce Department
posts under the first President Bush before chairing the RNC from 1997
to 2001. She later became acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy
under the second President Bush and then head of the State Department’s
bureau of educational and cultural affairs.
Would it be a good idea to appoint a party operative as head of CPB? Tomlinson
replies that Harrison’s “reputation at State was not one of a
partisan.” But he declines to comment about Harrison as CPB’s
CPB has hired executive firm Spencer Stuart to conduct the search and the
board expects to reach a decision during its June meeting, according to Tomlinson.
“The question will be,” NPR Executive Vice President Ken Stern
said May 6 on KCRW’s To the Point, “will they replace a respected
nonpartisan broadcaster with someone with similar credentials?”
“The most important thing is that we conduct an open search,” said
board member Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. “It
doesn’t behoove us to be perceived as political.”
Cox officially took over for Coonrod in July 2004, shortly before Senate
hearings on the reauthorization of CPB. The panel largely glossed over
the programming balance issue, but there were fireworks behind the scenes.
By the Times’ account, Tomlinson worked with Bush strategist
Karl Rove to kill an APTS proposal to add more station reps on the CPB Board.
The statute now calls for one member representing public TV stations and one
representing public radio.
Tomlinson did lobby against the proposal but neither he nor APTS agrees
with the Times report.
Tomlinson says two pubcasting leaders had claimed erroneously that Rove
was supporting the proposal, not opposing it.
“I asked Karl Rove, ‘Are you all going to be supporting this?’
And he said ‘no’. End of involvement,” Tomlinson told On the Media.
Lawson remembers it differently. It was Tomlinson who’d hoped to
enlist high-level backing, Lawson told Current. “Ken said he
was going to get the White House involved to stop the amendment, but we were
House officials that the issue didn’t rise to the level of presidential
attention.” Lawson said the reauthorization bill would have contained
a compromise amendment.
In any case, the bill itself died in the Senate.
Early this year, negotiations between PBS and CPB over a contract that
provides $22.5 million annually for PBS’s National Program Service
were a source of worry about political meddling by CPB.
An internal PBS memo, leaked to reporters, indicated that PBS officials
resisted CPB’s demands to accept new editorial standards language.
The memo was written in January by PBS Deputy General Counsel Paul Greco,
who briefed chief executives of public TV’s top three producing stations
about negotiations over PBS editorial standards in the NPS contract.
The contract supplements PBS investments in signature programs such as
American Experience, the NewsHour and Zoom.
In revisiting the contract for a new two-year term, CPB’s negotiators
wanted PBS to agree that its programs would adhere to language on balance
and objectivity drawn from the Public Broadcasting Act, according to the
memo. Greco described CPB’s stance as a threat to PBS’s editorial
independence that would open the door for “government encroachment
on and supervision of program content potentially in violation of the First
“We have done everything that I can think of to reassure those across
the river that that’s not what’s going on here,” said Steven
Altman, v.p. of business affairs at CPB, referring to colleagues who work
at PBS’s headquarters in Northern Virginia.
With the contract now renegotiated and signed, both PBS and CPB officials
say the terms of the new agreement are workable, and they downplay the
possibility for future conflicts.
The contract does include provisions that give CPB new leverage. It sets
next month as a deadline for PBS to revise and update its editorial standards,
and it makes CPB’s 2006 funding for the NPS contingent on the corporation’s
acceptance of the standards.
PBS convened an Editorial Standards Review Committee in February to review
the guidelines. The panel, composed primarily of veteran journalists who
have graduated to academia and think tanks, agreed early on that guidelines
approved in 1987 were generally sound but needed updating to deal with
issues related to web publishing and the multiplatform nature of PBS content.
committee appears to be on track to finish the rewrite on time.
The NPS contract specifies that the revised guidelines will ensure that
PBS programs deemed controversial will meet “appropriate standards of objectivity
and balance and . . . contain adequate provisions for oversight and enforcement
Despite CPB’s push for stronger balance requirements, the language
is still not very specific, said PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan. The contract
doesn’t define “controversial” or “appropriate standards.”
“The way PBS looks at it is that we are determining our editorial
standards and we expect that CPB will acknowledge the expertise that’s
gone into them and be fine with that,” she said.
“We have had such productive conversations with PBS, I would be astonished
if this doesn’t fly on first draft,” Altman said.
Another new provision in which PBS agrees that “the investment of CPB
funds in programs of a controversial nature pursuant to this agreement will
meet the statutory objectivity and balance goal,” also allows some
wiggle room in its use of the word “goal,” according to Sloan. “It
still is not a fixed point,” she said.
In other provisions, the contract includes a supplemental $4 million grant
for needs identified in CPB’s 2003-04 primetime research project,
and a requirement that PBS convene a working group to deal with rights
related to video-on-demand.
White House staffer role murky
Early this year Cox hired Mary Catherine Andrews, a former White House
staffer who features in a “gotcha” moment of uncertain significance in
the Times’ story.
“While she was still on the White House staff,” the newspaper
helped draft guidelines governing the work of two ombudsmen whom the corporation
recently appointed to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts.”
Andrews told the Times that she worked on the CPB project in her
free time as she finished her White House job.
A former foreign policy aide and consultant, Andrews joined the Bush administration
in 2001 as an official in the National Security Council. In 2004, she was
named director of the Office of Global Communications. Her White House bio
also listed her as a special assistant to the President.
The OGC was essentially dissolved in March, not long before the April release
of a Government Accountability Office report that found that it had been largely
Andrews knew Tomlinson and he thought highly enough of Andrews to praise her
in a June 2003 House subcommittee hearing, where he spoke in his role as chair
of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Though she spoke with Tomlinson about coming to CPB, Andrews emphasized
that it was Cox who hired her. She said she reviewed some of CPB’s ombudsman
materials—a press release, a charter and a Code of Ethics—“at
home” while she was finishing her stint at the White House.
Asked if anyone at the White House helped her shape the new ombudsman offices,
Andrews replied, “Good God, no. Absolutely not.”
In March, Cox was also hiring Ken Ferree, departing chief of the FCC’s
Media Bureau, to take her old job as chief operating officer.
Within two weeks, Cox was out of a job herself and Ferree was acting president.
Ombudsmen will get once-over
CPB’s dual ombudsmen, also introduced in April, will get an outside
review of their positions next week. One of them, Ken Bode, put the issue
before the international Organization of News Ombudsmen [its
he applied for membership recently, said Jeffrey Dvorkin, chairman of the
at NPR. The organization meets May 22-25 in London.
“Everyone has a pretty open mind on this,” said Dvorkin. “The
issue for us is whether CPB is an appropriate organization to belong to
an organization of news ombudsmen, since they are usually newsgathering organizations
who are responsible to listeners, viewers and readers.” ONO has asked
CPB to describe the roles of its ombudsmen, he said.
Bode and fellow ombudsman William Schulz are supposed to craft their own
guidelines regarding how they will review news stories, decide which to
review and split their responsibilities, CPB officials said. Their sole
April 26 missives on NPR Iraq stories, offered little insight into their
motivation or investigative process.
Many in the system are reluctant to vent publicly their concerns about
CPB from political pressure, but Tomlinson and company have their share
One of the most vocal is retiring Kansas City PTV President Bill Reed,
who e-mailed the chairman a criticism of his “sad, ridiculous witch hunt
at a time when we should be standing together to make sure public broadcasting
is funded adequately.”
“You and those board members who support you should be sacked,” he
CPB concerns about liberal bias are of a piece with past right-wing attacks
from Nixon onward, he told Current. “If we don’t call these people
out when they pull this stuff, it will continue to happen.”
Fanning of Frontline said the flap is “doing damage to public broadcasting
as a whole because it’s creating a divisiveness about who we are.”
Public TV can’t be seen to bend to political whims, he said. “We
need to be very clear around this—that public television has always
had an independent voice. We have enormous trust from the audience.”
“Our job as journalists is to ask tough questions of people in power
and to be fair in those questions and fair in our reporting,” Fanning
will continue to do that.”
‘Tempest in a teacup’
However, some see the ongoing controversy as more of a Beltway bitchfest
than a crisis with real-world consequences.
Wrangling over CPB is a cyclical part of the “overheated political process
of Washington and the politics of screaming and labeling everything,”
said David Brugger, former APTS president. “It uses a lot of energy
that in the long run could be put to ways to make public broadcasting better.”
Local stations—not the CPB Board—decide what programs to air
or not air, Brugger said. “The great celebration of the system is that
everything is a check and balance, and the American public ends up deciding
what public broadcasting is going to do.”
Even Siceloff of Now, the PBS program that riled Tomlinson, isn’t
calling his fans to the battlements. “This tempest in a teacup about
what’s going on at CPB and PBS is a signal first of all that people
care about this, which means a lot to me,” he said. What’s important
is to “make sure public television is funded to ensure that we get quality
“The problems with public television go far beyond whatever political
threats exist,” says former Lawrence Grossman, a former PBS president
now advocating a federal endowment for public-interest media. PBS’s
difficulties in creating unique programs that distinguish it in today’s
media environment suggest “far deeper and broader problems.”
In public radio, meanwhile, a resolution presented at NPR’s annual
membership meeting May 3 in Washington urged CPB to “do nothing to
diminish the firewall” protecting its program independence and to defer
to broadcast professionals’ decisions about pubradio priorities.
Presented by Tim Emmons, g.m. of Northern Public Radio in DeKalb, Ill.,
the resolution [text] directed CPB to stay out of programming decisions
and questioned the role of the agency’s new ombudsmen.
“There is a fundamental disconnect between the traditional role of ombudsmen
and a funding agency,” Emmons told Current, adding, “The
strong implication is that funding priorities can change if [CPB doesn’t]
agree with the point of view of the piece of work, and that makes me uncomfortable.”
The week before the membership meeting, NPR staffers asked Emmons to present
the resolution. Mike Riksen, v.p. of government relations, provided a draft
that asked why CPB needed ombudsmen if the network already employs one.
Emmons struck that from the resolution and instead played up potential
harm to stations’ independence,
which he called his main concern.
Lacking a quorum, Tim Eby, chairman of the NPR Board, held a straw vote
on the resolution, which received many “ayes” and no objections.
Eby read the resolution again at a meeting of the NPR Board May 6.
Pack assures producers
Across the continent during the same week, CPB avoided potential bitter
conflict with independent producers and foreign broadcasters at the Input
public TV screening in San Francisco.
Michael Pack, a low-key former indie who specialized in conservative themes
before joining CPB as senior v.p. for television programming two years
ago, reassured a luncheon crowd: “I personally have felt no pressure from
the board or from senior management on the content of television programming,
and I give my assurance that it will not happen in the future.”
Pack said he’s not trying to suppress controversy. “I personally,
as a filmmaker, feel public television has lost its controversial edge,” he
CPB’s biggest program initiative—the America at a Crossroads
package of 20 hours of programming planned to air next year on the fifth
anniversary of 9/11—will highlight conflicting views on civil liberties,
perceptions of Islam and America and other issues, he said. While CPB will
expect producers to be fair in their journalism he said, it will be vitally
important to present a wide range of views.
Reported with assistance from Mike Janssen and Steve Behrens