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The probe: Unilateral actions exceeded chair’s authority

Originally published in Current, Nov. 21, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson repeatedly violated provisions of both the Public Broadcasting Act and the corporation’s guidelines for board members’ behavior, according to the report of a six-month internal investigation released Nov. 15.

Ken Tomlinson, Ken Konz

Tomlinson, who resigned from the CPB Board earlier this month, meddled in programming decisions, injected politics into hiring procedures and ignored contracting guidelines, CPB Inspector General Kenneth A. Konz found.

The report spurred another round of press coverage focusing on an institution that, until this spring, flew mostly under the Washington press corps radar. The inspector general’s findings substantiated much of the early press coverage.

Konz found that many of Tomlinson’s actions in his campaign against liberal bias—hiring a content monitor to review Now with Bill Moyers and other pubcasting shows, pushing for creation of Journal Editorial Report and hiring ombudsmen—exceeded “the oversight role of a board member in making procurement and programming decisions.”

Tomlinson put politics front and center while selecting executives such as Patricia Harrison, CPB’s president, even though the Public Broadcasting Act prohibits “political tests” from being considered in personnel decisions, according to the investigator.

The 42-page report presented Tomlinson as an opinionated appointee who felt he could make unilateral decisions that would affect all of public broadcasting — such as handpicking CPB’s ombudsmen — and regularly “admonished” CPB executives who didn’t agree with his methods.

Tomlinson, whose two-year term as board chairman ended in September, left the board Nov. 3 after Konz presented his preliminary findings to the board.

In a pointed response published in the report, Tomlinson disputed Konz’s judgments and maintained he had done nothing wrong. [Text of his statement in the report.]

“Any suggestion by Mr. Konz that I violated my fiduciary duties, the Director’s Code of Ethics or relevant statutory provisions is malicious and irresponsible,” Tomlinson wrote. Konz’s “pre-conceived and unjustified findings will only help to maintain the status quo and other reformers will be discouraged from seeking change.”

However, at a CPB Board meeting coinciding with the report’s release, Tomlinson’s former colleagues — several of whom had voiced support for the former chairman’s mission for balance in the past — lauded Konz’s efforts.
The inspector “has helped the board immeasurably in understanding what needs to be fixed,” said Cheryl Halpern, Tomlinson’s successor as board chair.

Cox payout raises eyebrows

Konz, inspector general at CPB since 1998, reports to the board chairman but cannot be prohibited from pursuing any audit or investigation. The Tomlinson probe was the most extensive investigation Konz has undertaken at CPB, he said in an interview.

His report also criticized CPB’s corporate governance system, which allowed execs and board members to operate without checks and balances, discouraged communication between senior staff and the board, and offered little oversight of contracts, hiring procedure or exec compensation standards.

For example, when the board forced former CPB President Kathleen Cox to resign in April — nine months into her one-year contract — Tomlinson gave her a “very generous” severance of more than three times her salary and benefits, Konz wrote. The amount was $614,000, according to CPB spokesman Michael Levy. The reasons for the sum are hazy, the report said, because negotiations were not documented.

Given the size of the payout, “it would have been appropriate to document the authorization as CPB would for any large payment, with appropriate sign-offs and concurrences from authorized officials,” the report said.

According to a statement by Cox, Tomlinson, concerned that the payout would appear on publicly disclosed tax forms, persuaded her to have a “sizable portion” of her severance paid out in the following fiscal year. That payment, due to Cox by Oct. 31, remains unpaid.

“To make that big a settlement has required some budget scrambling” to keep administrative spending below the statutory limit of 5 percent of the appropriation, said a CPB staffer who requested anonymity.

The corporation’s bylaws also fail to spell out board members’ and officers’ specific responsibilities or “address remedies when directors and officers exceeded their authorities,” the report said.

[Another personnel decision overseen by Tomlinson—a post-employment consulting contract worth nearly $500,000 to Cox's predecessor as president, Robert Coonrod, was reported by the New York Times Nov. 21.]

“While the inspector general’s findings are bracing,” Halpern said, “they offer an opportunity for us to take clear and decisive actions to correct past practices and build a stronger public broadcasting system.”

U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who, with David Obey (D-Wis.), requested the probe in May, was more blunt in his assessment.

Tomlinson “took advantage of a lackadaisical board of directors and a curious absence of basic management” and inserted politics into CPB operations, he said. “Now the board needs to get tough or get out.”

Board stands behind Harrison

In response to the findings, the board last week created a corporate governance committee and an executive compensation committee to define roles in the corporation, adopt policies for hiring senior managers and make the board’s decision-making more transparent for public scrutiny.

At the same time, the board unanimously reaffirmed its support for Harrison, whom Tomlinson had advocated for the CPB presidency even before the board promoted Cox to the position in July 2004.

“Our current CEO has the full support of our board, notwithstanding the questions raised in your Report regarding Mr. Tomlinson’s role in her hiring,” the board wrote in a letter to Konz that was published in the report. “Although Pat Harrison has been in office less than five months, she has conducted herself in an exemplary fashion.”

A trio of media watchdog groups — Common Cause, Free Press and the Center for Digital Democracy — called for Harrison’s resignation last week, based on Konz’s finding that political considerations were “major criteria” in her recruitment. They had opposed Harrison's hiring because of her strong partisan ties. Harrison, a prominent public relations executive, was co-chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2001. She was assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs before being named CPB president in June.

Harrison told reporters she has no plans to step down.
“If I could have chosen how I would move into this job, would it have been in this way? Of course not — it became totally politicized,” she said. But she didn’t politicize the situation, she insisted. “My job as c.e.o. is to keep politics out of this.”

“I don’t ask you to take my word alone,” she added. “Just see what I do over the next several months.” Pubcasters have been generally impressed with Harrison as she’s traveled the country since her appointment to meet with station managers and staff.

And because of her past high-profile political appointments, Harrison also has unprecedented stature among legislators, which could make her an effective advocate, a CPB executive said. “For the first time within memory, members of Congress took the president of CPB as an equal.”

Even those critical of past CPB moves expressed confidence in Harrison’s leadership.“ I think Pat Harrison is committed to righting the ship and moving on in a positive way,” said APTS President John Lawson, who is currently gathering feedback on his own CPB reform package (APTS Action Inc. resolution). “We hope the majority of the board will see things the same way.”

Said the CPB executive: “The big division in the staff at the moment seems to be over whether this is over.”

A “strongly motivated” shake-up

Of the many transgressions Konz cited, perhaps the most substantive was Tomlinson’s role in shepherding the Wall Street Journal’s roundtable of conservative commentators, Journal Editorial Report, to the air. The former chairman advised Paul Gigot, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, to reject a PBS offer to appear regularly on Now with Bill Moyers because he believed PBS would give him a show comparable to Moyers’ (separate story).

Tomlinson also proposed the show format and told CPB staff to threaten to withhold CPB’s annual $22.5 million grant to PBS if the network didn’t balance its programming. This violated Tomlinson’s “fiduciary responsibilities and statutory prohibitions against Board member involvement in programming decisions,” the inspector general concluded.

Konz said in an interview that despite bloggers’ and commentators’ descriptions of Tomlinson as a partisan hack leading a GOP assault on PBS, he found no evidence that the chairman was participating in an organized right-wing takeover of public broadcasting.

However, Tomlinson clearly “was looking for Republicans to fill vacancies that were here,” Konz told reporters.

The report mentioned, but did not publish, e-mails between Tomlinson and White House staffers that, “while cryptic in nature . . . give the appearance that the former chairman was strongly motivated by political considerations in filling the president/CEO position.” Some of those exchanges were with GOP strategist and Tomlinson pal Karl Rove, Konz said. Late last week Common Cause and other activists demanded the release of those e-mails.

Tomlinson told Rove and other White House officials that he was trying “to shake up” the organization and hire Republican staff, Konz said last week in an interview with Bloomberg News. Tomlinson also sought White House comment on his plan to hire Harrison and asked for recommendations for other possible Republican hires.
The White House did not allow Konz to interview its staff members.

While Harrison’s appointment struck critics as Republican cronyism, it was actually exceptional in that it was reviewed by an outside search firm. Of seven other senior-level hires the investigators reviewed, six were filled solely “through personal knowledge of the individual’s experience or referrals,” the report said.

What’s appropriate and what’s not

The report drew lines defining the parts of Tomlinson’s campaign that were acceptable and those that were inappropriate acts by a board chairman.

Tomlinson was typically quick to smile and praise colleagues, CPB staff and pubcasting in general during interviews, CPB Board meetings and appearances before Congress.

But Konz’s report portrayed the former chairman as someone with little patience for those who disagreed with him and who regarded himself as the final word in CPB matters.

He told CPB execs not to interfere with his efforts to bring balance to PBS. When he discovered that Cox had hired a consultant to study the ombudsman concept without his knowledge, he admonished her, canceled the contract and put his own candidates before the board. When Cox attempted to contact individual board members directly, he forbade her from doing so without getting clearance from him, according to her statement.

“I’m always concerned when you have a single person at PBS or CPB making decisions on behalf of everybody, especially when they have a perception of something being wrong that is not backed up by empirical evidence,” said Ron Pisaneschi, broadcast director of Idaho PTV and president of Public Television Programmers Association.

In the wake of all the controversy, the board and senior management have pledged to operate more openly. The new regime will err on the side of openness, Harrison and CPB General Counsel Westwood Smithers said.

And though most of last week’s board meeting was also held in executive session, board member Ernest Wilson expects more meetings to be open in the future, he said. The board’s new governance committee will oversee CPB’s compliance with open-meeting requirements.

Tomlinson resigns from CPB Board; APTS affiliate urges board reforms

Bulletin updated on Nov. 4, 2005

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, former chairman of the CPB Board (pictured), resigned Nov. 3 [2005] after the organization's inspector general briefed the board on his forthcoming report about Tomlinson's activities.

The board released this statement:

"The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Directors today announced that its former chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson has resigned from the CPB Board. The board does not believe that Mr. Tomlinson acted maliciously or with any intent to harm CPB or public broadcasting, and the board recognizes that Mr. Tomlinson strongly disputes the findings in the soon-to-be-released Inspector General’s report. The board expresses its disappointment in the performance of former key staff whose responsibility it was to advise the Board and its members. Nonetheless, both the board and Mr. Tomlinson believe it is in the best interests of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that he no longer remain on the board. The board commends Mr. Tomlinson for his legitimate efforts to achieve balance and objectivity in public broadcasting."

Web page posted Nov. 22, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Aspects of
the affair

What the IG found: meddling, weak CPB governance

A second PBS show boosted by the chairman goes dark

How to fix what ails CPB?

Are CPB's ombudsmen on balance duty or not?

Another IG, in State Dept., probes Tomlinson

Two CPB Board vacancies: Dem ex-senator pushed for one

New Konz assignment goes after stations' political action


November 2002: In a commentary on his PBS show, Bill Moyers skewers Republican ideology, escalating the conflict between PBS and conservatives..

February 2003: Michael Pack, maker of films on conservative politics named CPB's TV program chief.

April 2003: PBS decrees fast track for more diverse political views.

November 2003: CPB Board member Halpern tells Senate that CPB would need more authority to enforce balance.

January 2004: Common Cause posits rising partisanship at CPB.

June 2004: Talk hosts entering from the right.

September 2004: With the Tucker Carlson and WSJ shows, what has PBS added to the schedule?

May 2005: Members of an advisory panel to PBS worry that CPB's push for right-leaning programming has compromised the network's objectivity.

May 2005: Blow-by-blow account of recent partisan-balance activities of CPB leaders.

May 2005: PBS's Mitchell may have played a bigger role in putting Wall Street Journal pundits on pubTV than CPB's Tomlinson did.

May 2005: CPB takes flak at media reform conference.

June 2005: Opponents want him gone but Tomlinson sits tight.

June 2005: CPB hires Harrison as president over objections of public broadcasters.

November 2005: Inspector General briefs CPB Board on his report. Tomlinson resigns from board.


Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) called for a congressional investigation when the IG's report came out. Dorgan said the Tomlinson affair fits with the Bush administration's "long pattern of unbridled, all-out partisanship and cronyism."

The CPB inspector general's report: executive summary or full report (PDF).

Tomlinson's response, published in the report.

The CPB Board induced former President Robert Coonrod to extend his time in office by giving him a four-year consulting contract worth nearly $500,000 and starting after he left CPB, the New York Times reported Nov. 21. Because the CPB president's salary is capped by Congress (he was paid $174,000), the contract could raise political hackles.

Was Cox promised $614,000 to hasten her departure or to keep her quiet? asks the head of Common Cause in an NPR interview.

The Rev. James Dobson's "Family News in Focus" website quotes "media critic Pat Trueman" calling for nonliberals to "step into the void" left by Ken Tomlinson's resignation from the CPB Board and "take up where he left off." (Earlier this year Patrick A. Trueman was a senior legal counsel of Family Research Council.) The article seems to imply that liberals have chased away Tomlinson.

Media activists criticized the CPB Board for behaving "more like a private, secret society than an agency supported by taxpayers."



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