Getting it Half Right

At Monday’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee meeting exploring funding for public broadcasting, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) announced that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Inspector General was launching an investigation into the process that led to the selection of new CPB President Patricia Harrison, who took over last month.

Although this is getting to be a little like Spy vs. Spy — is everyone at CPB investigating everyone else at CPB? — this is good news, especially since press reports at the time indicated that Kenneth Tomlinson, the chair of CPB, used his muscle to push Harrison’s nomination through the CPB board. What’s more noteworthy is something that received spotty coverage: Not only is Harrison an obvious partisan (the CPB’s mission states explicitly that it is to be non-partisan and not affiliated with the administration in power or its policy-making apparatus), but in her role as acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, she herself was involved in some shady faux journalism.

In her previous gig, Harrison oversaw the Bureau of Public Affairs and the Office of Broadcast Services. The New York Times reported in March that beginning in 2002, “with close editorial direction from the White House,” the bureau produced feature reports promoting the Bush administration’s public rationale for the invasion of Iraq. These reports were then distributed in the United States and around the world for use by local television stations. In total, according to the Times, the State Department produced 59 such segments.

While the basics of all this have been made public in many newspapers (though without all the juicy details above), we have one quibble with this morning’s coverage of the announcement of the expanded investigation: Reporters are underreporting how much money Tomlinson spent, without the consent of the CPB Board, to try and prove “liberal bias” at PBS.

Broadcasting & Cable reported yesterday that the new investigation will become part of “another ongoing Inspector General investigation into whether CPB’s expenditure of $14,000 for an outside consultant to look into bias on noncom shows and the hiring of lobbyists to argue against changes in CPB board composition were appropriate.”

The Washington Post echoed these numbers, writing that the IG is looking at Tomlinson’s decision to spend “more than $14,000 of CPB funds to monitor public TV programming for signs of political bias, and his decision to hire Republican consultants to keep tabs on legislation in the Senate …”

The Baltimore Sun also ran an article on the story, writing today that the IG was looking at “Tomlinson’s decision to spend more than $14,000 of taxpayers’ money to hire Republican lobbyists and consultants …”

The problem? The papers are telling slightly less than half of the story. The IG is looking into the $14,000 Tomlinson paid to Fred Mann — off the books — to parse Bill Moyers’ “NOW” for liberal bias, but there’s also the additional $15,000 Tomlinson paid to two GOP lobbyists to “gain insight” on a senator’s thinking about a bill that the CPB opposed. By our count, that’s about $29,000 in payments the IG is looking at, and not the $14,000 everyone keeps reporting.

The only one we found to get it right was Stephen Labaton of the New York Times, who actually separated the $14,000 paid to Fred Mann from the $15,000 paid to the two consultants.

The resources are at hand to easily gather these facts. Now, it’s time for major daily newspapers to staff the story with people who can get it right.

Paul McLeary

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