Tomlinson Shows His Hand

Some silver-tongued orators skilled at the art of public discourse can spin a shaky or unsupported argument into rhetorical silk, leaving their opponents tongue-tied and at a loss for a rebuttal. Others, not equally blessed with a politician’s ability to shuck and jive, simply dig themselves deeper every time they open their mouth.

We think we know which camp Kenneth Tomlinson, our old buddy at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, falls into.

Before we get to Tomlinson’s most recent comments however, a little background. In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Sanford J. Ungar, director of Voice of America from 1999 to 2001, wrote a piece lamenting the budget cuts and political meddling that have marred VoA’s record in recent years. Writing that the influence of VoA is being “systematically diminished” by these cuts, he also makes note that VoA reporters “have tried to fend off directives from VoA director David Jackson and other political appointees, who have suggested that the network report more favorably on the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and the Middle East.”

This is consistent with what CJR’s Corey Pein wrote in the May/June issue of the magazine, when he reported that VoA correspondents have always felt pressure to act as advocates for American policy, “but under the current administration, the pressure is barely disguised.”

Tomlinson, as chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, oversees the VoA, and as might be expected, didn’t much like Ungar’s takedown in Foreign Affairs. In the as-yet unreleased July/August issue, Tomlinson strikes back at Ungar in a letter, which CJR Daily obtained a pre-publication copy of.

It’s an unfortunate letter, in that it makes certain specific claims but then fails to back them up with convincing evidence. At the very least, as any good politician can tell you, if you’re going to intentionally mislead the public, you have to keep your statements opaque enough to allow yourself some wiggle room. Tomlinson, as you may be able to guess by now, did not.

He begins his letter by writing, “I have worked in four administrations, and this is the first time there has been no attempt from the White House, the National Security Council, or the State Department to interfere with the programming broadcast by our professional journalists.”

Tomlinson’s assertion is directly contradicted by rebuttals in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs by Ungar and an anonymous VoA staffer. The staffer notes that over the past several years, some VoA television scripts have been “subject to an unusual level of personal scrutiny and revision by VOA Director Jackson, and before him by former director Robert Reilly, to ensure that they reflected administration views and did not accentuate negatives, but positives in the ‘war on terrorism.’”

What’s more, the staffer writes that “Jackson has been intimately involved in directing the day-to-day, and some say the minute-to-minute appearance, of the Voice of America Web site to reflect more positive news, particularly where reporting on Iraq, the Middle East, and the president’s democracy agenda are concerned, to the point where some VOA employees have complained about what they see as unusual pressure.”

Ungar also writes in to refute Tomlinson’s claims, recalling an August 2003 incident in which Jackson criticized the news division for “not reporting on a document, apparently passed to him by the National Security Council, but carrying no attribution, detailing administration successes in Iraq 100 days after the invasion.”

What’s more, in January 2004, Jackson “ordered the news division to stop reporting from Baghdad on car bombings and terror attacks, urging that it instead do ‘positive stories’ emphasizing U.S. successes in Iraq.” In another case, in January and February 2004, Jackson forwarded a series of memos from the White House and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, “insisting that these press releases from the CPA did not require independent verification by VOA reporters in Iraq.”

Both Ungar and the VoA mole cite many other instances of Jackson’s meddling in editorial decisions to offer a decidedly pro-administration slant on the news, but the ones related here are enough to paint a picture of some serious ideological interference by Tomlinson and Jackson in their campaign to redirect VoA’s news coverage.

Despite the evidence offered above, in his letter to Foreign Affairs, Tomlinson arrogantly writes that “As for VOA director David Jackson, his lengthy career as a Time magazine foreign correspondent speaks for itself — and dwarfs the credentials of his critics. I have yet to see any case in which his news decisions were dictated by anything other than professionalism.” (Emphasis ours.)

Tomlinson leaves out some key facts here. He gets it right that Jackson did indeed work for Time — but that was before he left the magazine four years ago to help create the Pentagon’s PR Web site, That’s quite a career shift on Jackson’s part, and a pretty glaring omission by Tomlinson.

Meantime, the allegations of political interference at Voice of America add a new and telling wrinkle to the ongoing fight between Tomlinson’s CPB on the one hand and PBS and NPR on the other — a pattern of increasing partisan control over publicly funded broadcasting that is becoming more and more difficult to deny.

By taking part in the fight in such a public manner, and armed with outright falsehoods, Tomlinson may have shown his hand one too many times.

As a result, his pleas that he’s just “trying to provide balance” to public broadcasting sound like an increasingly tinny trumpet, designed to drown out the jackhammers as Tomlinson continues his attempted demolition of our publicly funded news media.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.