Kenneth Tomlinson don't get no respect. The outgoing chairman of the Corp. for Public Broadcasting said he was just trying to bring a little balance to public TV when he secretly initiated a content audit that used comments about the Bush administration as a barometer.
"America doesn't speak with one voice," Tomlinson said at a luncheon hosted by the Media Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to communications policy and the First Amendment. Tomlinson said the perceived "liberal bias" of public broadcasting has alienated many conservatives on Capitol Hill and thus threatens continued federal funding for the institution. His intention was to preserve public broadcasting, but his tactics caused a firestorm.
In May, the previously under-the-radar CPB chief made headlines in The New York Times over hiring a consultant to keep track of Bush references on "Now with Bill Moyers," without the knowledge of the board. The article described how the resulting report "placed the program's guests in categories like 'anti-Bush,' 'anti-business' and 'anti-Tom DeLay,'" the House majority leader. Tomlinson also hired an administration official as a senior staff member to draft content review guidelines.
Two House Democrats subsequently called for an internal investigation by the CPB Inspector General on whether Tomlinson foisted a Republican agenda onto public TV. The Times piece reported that he'd even said as much at a members' meeting of the Association for Public Television Stations. Tomlinson said the comment was in jest, and he seemed bewildered it wasn't taken that way, even while his conduct for that very allegation is under investigation.
"I can't imagine anything dumber than a Republican standing up in front of public broadcasters and saying, 'follow a Republican agenda,'" he said.
Tomlinson, who worked for many years as a reporter and editor for Readers Digest, said he considered himself "a journalist of balance." He described writing a piece for the Digest that eclipsed Oliver North's budding political career, and another exposing Mike Barnacle, who was fired from the Boston Globe for plagiarizing.
"This thing of balance is not rocket science," he said. "Never once did I advocate taking any liberal programs off the air. I simply urged--some say too powerfully--that if you have a liberal program on the air, you should air a conservative program."
Asked if he had any regrets, Tomlinson cracked that he wished he'd gone to Afghanistan on BBG business when the Times reporter called him. No on laughed. In a more sincere tone, he said that he didn't want to be remembered as "someone who damaged public broadcasting."
"In the end, if I threatened the cozy atmosphere of liberal bias at public broadcasting, then so be it, " he said.
The Inspector General's report will be issued after Tomlinson steps down at the end of his two-year term (Sept. 27). Several media watchdog groups have rallied to eject Tomlinson from public broadcasting altogether, but unless Congress does so, Tomlinson will continue to serve on the CPB board as well as the Broadcast Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and other government-funded international TV and radio networks.
He said his continued agenda as a board member would be to build bi-partisan support for public broadcasting, and to push for the development of more children's educational programming.
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