Public gets glimpse of bias monitoring
Pubcasters and a U.S. senator reacted with surprise and derision to a CPB-commissioned report tracking the political leanings of interviewees on public radio and television shows.
Data from the report released by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-S.D.) revealed that the author, Frederick W. Mann, monitored programs beyond Now with Bill Moyers. CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson commissioned the report from Mann, about whom little is known.
The existence of the report was first revealed in the New York Times May 2 but its content was not made public until June 30, when Dorgan released pages he had received from Tomlinson.
The Times revealed the study’s focus on Now with Bill Moyers, a show that Tomlinson has publicly charged with liberal bias. But Mann also tracked The Diane Rehm Show and two discontinued shows, PBS’s Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered and NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show. He also summarized the weekday schedule of WBAA, a public radio station in West Lafayette, Ind.
Most of the 100-plus pages Dorgan released feature brief synopses of topics covered on the shows. Mann laid out in tables his assessment of interviewees’ political biases and devoted a one-page summary to Now data. The material does not indicate how the shows were selected, what Tomlinson had requested or what he planned to do with the results.
Riddled with typos, the material drew mockery for lacking polish and tarring even Republicans as liberals when they criticized President Bush.
"I think it was embarrassing to public broadcasting and embarrassing to CPB in its amateurish and secretive nature,” said Ken Stern, NPR’s executive v.p.
It “appears to have been cobbled together by an armchair analyst with little or no professional preparation for the task,” Dorgan said. “The report is itself steeped in deep political bias,” he said, adding that it was “a little nutty.”
The CPB Board was unaware of the study, according to Dorgan. Furthermore, Tomlinson at first told the senator that former CPB President Kathleen Cox authorized the report, then acknowledged signing the contract himself. Mann was paid $14,170, according to the Times.
At the request of House Democrats, CPB’s Inspector General is investigating whether Tomlinson exceeded his powers as board chairman. CPB and Tomlinson declined comment on the report, citing the investigation. Tomlinson has said he wanted to keep the study secret to avoid controversy that would damage pubcasting.
Reporters have been unable to reach Mann. Until last year he worked for the National Journalism Center, a Virginia-based journalism training program run by conservative groups. He appears to have conducted his study in the Indianapolis area, sending faxes to Tomlinson from a Mary Ann’s Hallmark store. A woman at the Indianapolis address in Mann’s voter registration records said he did not live there.
Mann reviewed shows from October 2003 to June 2004, when his VCR cooperated (he notes one “video tape malfunction”). He classified guests as liberal or conservative—“L” or “C” for short. Other categories included “anti-Bush,” “anti-corporations” and “anti-DeLay,” referring to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Dorgan noted that Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, was labeled a “liberal” apparently for criticizing Bush’s war effort in Iraq in an appearance on the Tavis Smiley Show. (Hagel praised Ronald Reagan in the same segment.) And Bob Barr, a conservative and former congressman from Georgia, was tagged “anti-administration.” Meanwhile, conservative Bill Kristol got an “N” for “neutral.”
Mann also labeled journalists including NPR’s Deborah Amos and several
Washington Post reporters as liberals.
At times Mann felt liberal views went unchallenged. In a Now segment about a conservative political action committee’s meeting, “no one was quoted saying anything positive about President Bush’s policies.” And Diane Rehm failed to challenge retired Gen. Anthony Zinni’s criticisms of the Iraq War with “any obvious questions reflection (sic) the opposing view,” Mann wrote.
The nine-month review of Now concluded that 92 of 136 segments “clearly opposed administration/government policies.” Smiley and Rehm were sporadically reviewed in June 2004. Fewer than half of Smiley’s guests and more than two-thirds of Rehm’s were counted as liberal. Little was written about Carlson.
Rehm said she was “absolutely stunned” to learn of her show’s appearance in the study. Tomlinson appeared on Rehm’s show in May and praised the host for achieving balance.
"I felt as though Ken Tomlinson came on this program and spoke with forked tongue,” she said.
posted July 12, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee