behind the news

Spy vs. Spy

May 13, 2005

Over the past several weeks, a number of stories have run about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, trying to make public broadcasting more “fair and balanced.” As the New York Times reported on May 2, Tomlinson secretly contracted with an outside consultant early last year to track the political leanings of the guests on the allegedly liberal ”Now With Bill Moyers.” The consultant began labeling the program’s guests as ”anti-Bush,” or ”anti-business,” or ”anti-Tom DeLay” — categories whose very adoption, if you ask us, write their own conclusions.

In addition, Tomlinson’s concerns about promoting “objectivity and balance” led him to create a new office of the ombudsman, which hired two staffers to issue reports about public television and radio broadcasts. At first blush, this seems reasonable enough, but when you take into account that, as we reported previously, most Americans already find public broadcasting “fair and balanced,” it begins to look like he’s trying to force blood from a stone in his quest to find liberal bias on public television and radio.

While Tomlinson claims that the new office is a non-ideological entity, he’s not doing a very good job of selling it. It doesn’t help his case that the head of the new office is Mary Catherine Andrews, former director of the Office of Global Communications at the White House — not exactly a position that can be said to be devoid of an ideological bent. What’s more, while still in her position as a White House staffer, Andrews wrote a set of guidelines for the CPB’s two ombudsmen to use when monitoring political content on PBS.

On Wednesday, Democratic Representatives David Obey and John Dingell publicly called for a review of the review process Tomlinson has put into place. As a result, according to Broadcasting & Cable, the CPB’s inspector general will begin an internal review of the political monitoring of PBS being conducted by Tomlinson’s two ombudsmen.

Got all that? That’s right — Congress’ spy, spying on Tomlinson’s spy. Your tax dollars at work.

On top of this, Obey and Dingell are charging that Tomlinson’s actions may have violated the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which bans interference by federal officials in public programming. “Congress intended that the CPB serve as a shield rather than a source of political interference into public broadcasting,” they wrote, adding, “If CPB is moving in the direction of censorship of public affairs content based on partisanship and political views, this will severely erode the public trust that public broadcasting heretofore has enjoyed.”

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For his part, Tomlinson continues to profess a nonpartisan agenda — even though he pushed for (and came up with $5 million to finance) the “Journal Editorial Report” on PBS — an electronic version of the Wall Street Journal‘s extremely conservative editorial page.

Meanwhile, given all the media attention Tomlinson’s various power plays have received, it’s curious that little of the coverage has mentioned that he is also the chairman of the influential Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all non-military U.S. international broadcasting. The BBG, which shares $1 billion in federal funding with the State Department, controls the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Television Network (MTN). While reporters who work for VOA and the other government-funded networks have long asserted that they are producing journalism, as opposed to government propaganda, given Tomlinson’s performance at CPB, one wonders about the wisdom of putting him in a position to oversee both pro-government foreign broadcasting and non-partisan domestic broadcasting. While the two are certainly separate, this smells of a conflict of interest that might warrant some more press coverage.

Now that Reps. Obey and Dingell have entered the fray, let’s hope that some hard and fast rules are laid down, and that our publicly funded media continues to do the people’s business — as opposed to the executive branch’s.

Paul McLeary is a former CJR staff writer. Since 2008, he has covered the Pentagon for Foreign Policy, Defense News, Breaking Defense, and other outlets. He is currently a defense reporter for Politico.