Kenneth Tomlinson, a former Reader’s Digest editor and CPB Board chair who mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign to balance what he saw as a liberal bias in PBS programming, died May 1 in Winchester, Va. He was 69.
The cause of death was melanoma, according to Tomlinson’s son, Lucas.
Tomlinson was appointed to the CPB board by President Clinton in 2000 and elected chair in 2003, when Republican appointees held the majority of board seats. As chair, Tomlinson wielded his influence to exert pressure on PBS to bring more conservative points of view to its public affairs lineup.
His activities were viewed by pubcasters as breaching CPB’s role as a “heat shield” that protects their programming from political interference. Media revelations and the ouster of a CPB president eventually brought them to light, sparking one of the biggest political scandals in pubcasting history.
Tomlinson pressed PBS to pick up Journal Editorial Report, a panel show featuring the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. It was one of two conservative-helmed shows to debut in 2004 — the other was Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered.
Without the knowledge of the CPB board, Tomlinson also commissioned a consultant to review public radio and TV programming for political bias, including Now with Bill Moyers, which Tomlinson described as “liberal advocacy journalism.”
In a 2004 New Yorker feature that first revealed the CPB chair’s unusual involvement in program decisions, Tomlinson told media critic Ken Auletta, “It is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in public television as people on the left have.”
His largely hidden campaign later exploded into a full-scale Washington scandal following the sudden departure of CPB President Kathleen Cox in April 2005. An exposé in the New York Times brought months of scrutiny from the media, Congress and then-CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz.
It also cast a cloud over the 2005 hiring of Pat Harrison as CPB president. Harrison had been Tomlinson’s favored candidate for the job, but her earlier work as co-chair of the Republican National Committee prompted public broadcasters to object to her appointment as the scope of Tomlinson’s activities were disclosed in June 2005. Harrison won approval from the CPB Board and still holds the job.
Later that fall, the CPB IG, who reports to the CPB Board, found that Tomlinson had violated the Public Broadcasting Act and the board’s own ethical guidelines. Tomlinson disputed the IG’s findings but resigned in anticipation of the report’s public release.
In a 2005 statement, Tomlinson expressed disappointment that Konz opted for “politics over good judgment” in conducting his investigation. “My lawful and sincere objective from the outset in my role at CPB was to help bring balance and objectivity in public broadcasting,” Tomlinson said. “Public broadcasting should not be the domain of any particular ideology or party. The voices of America should be heard on public television — across the political spectrum.”
Tomlinson grew up in Galax, Va., a community in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He began his journalism career as a reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the mid-1960s before joining Reader’s Digest, where he worked for three decades, taking two years off in the 1980s to run Voice of America under President Ronald Reagan.
Tomlinson became editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest in 1989 and retired in 1996.
Tomlinson’s post-retirement public service work included a stint as chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2002-07, appointed by President George W. Bush. He oversaw the launch of the U.S.-run Arabic-language TV channel Alhurra, which broadcasts news and public-affairs programming to the Middle East. His term as BBG chair also drew scrutiny. A 2006 State Department investigation charged Tomlinson with improperly using government resources as support his interest in horse breeding and racing, among other violations.
Both CPB and BBG issued statements expressing appreciation for Tomlinson’s contributions. “Ken Tomlinson brought a tremendous amount of journalistic experience to his work here, and that showed in his achievements,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell in a release.
Tomlinson “served our country with distinction,” Harrison said in a May 2 CPB statement, adding that the corporation was saddened to learn of his passing.
Tomlinson is survived by his wife Rebecca and sons Will and Lucas. His funeral will be held May 9 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, Va.