Tomlinson Expands Witch Hunt

Looks like everyone’s favorite bureaucrat, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, is hiring yet more consultants in an effort to try and refashion the workings of publicly funded broadcasting.

This time, it isn’t the content of domestic public broadcasting that Tomlinson’s putting under the microscope, as he did to try and sniff out any “liberal bias” on PBS. Instead, it’s the business and organizational practices of the Voice of America. Remember, Tomlinson chairs not only the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which manages domestic public broadcasting, but also the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other U.S.-funded, non-military international broadcasting — roles that no one has ever held simultaneously before.

Taking the lead in this review is the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides “administrative and engineering support” for the BBG’s international broadcast services. In an internal email sent out to IBB employees on Thursday (a copy of which was provided to CJR Daily), the IBB says that it has hired the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton to “undertake a review of the organization and structure of [Voice of America] and IBB.”

Consultants, as we all know, are usually brought in to provide cover for management intent on making some big changes. In this case, they walk on stage at a time when, as Corey Pein pointed out in the March/April issue of CJR, the VOA is “being supplanted by a new model, something closer to MTV than the BBC. Voice people are nervous about the future of journalism at their network, some fearing it will be replaced by pure propaganda.”

According to the email, the consultants will, in part, be:

Collecting “comparative business practices” utilized by other public and private sector broadcasting organizations to derive relevant lessons for BBG’s current operating practices;

Assessing cost implications, keeping in mind the federal budget process and justification requirements

What this will mean in the end is anyone’s guess. But CJR reported back in March that Arab-language radio stations run by the BBG are beginning to concentrate more on pop music than news, and comparing “private sector” broadcasters to the VOA certainly sounds like this might be a road they’re contemplating traveling. One long-time VOA staffer who wishes to remain anonymous due to job concerns is wondering if the VOA is next. “Many believe this could be the way they will set up the ‘final blow(s)’ to VOA,” he told CJR Daily.

What is certain is that Tomlinson, despite the heat he has felt from Congress in recent weeks, isn’t backing down from any of his initiatives to fundamentally recast publicly-funded broadcasting — both domestic and international — in a whole new light.

Paul McLeary

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