Published on Monday, May 2, 2005 by the New York Times
Republican Chairman Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Biases
by Stephen Labatan, Lorne Manly and Elizabeth Jensen
WASHINGTON -- The Republican chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is aggressively pressing public television to correct what he and other conservatives consider liberal bias, prompting some public broadcasting leaders - including the chief executive of PBS - to object that his actions pose a threat to editorial independence.
Without the knowledge of his board, the chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, contracted last year with an outside consultant to keep track of the guests' political leanings on one program, "Now With Bill Moyers."
In late March, on the recommendation of administration officials, Mr. Tomlinson hired the director of the White House Office of Global Communications as a senior staff member, corporation officials said. While she was still on the White House staff, she helped draft guidelines governing the work of two ombudsmen whom the corporation recently appointed to review the content of public radio and television broadcasts.
Mr. Tomlinson also encouraged corporation and public broadcasting officials to broadcast "The Journal Editorial Report," whose host, Paul Gigot, is editor of the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. And while a search firm has been retained to find a successor for Kathleen A. Cox, the corporation's president and chief executive, whose contract was not renewed last month, Mr. Tomlinson has made clear to the board that his choice is Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee who is now an assistant secretary of state.
Mr. Tomlinson said that he was striving for balance and had no desire to impose a political point of view on programming, explaining that his efforts are intended to help public broadcasting distinguish itself in a 500-channel universe and gain financial and political support.
"My goal here is to see programming that satisfies a broad constituency," he said, adding, "I'm not after removing shows or tampering internally with shows."
But he has repeatedly criticized public television programs as too liberal overall, and said in the interview, "I frankly feel at PBS headquarters there is a tone deafness to issues of tone and balance."
Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive of PBS, who has sparred with Mr. Tomlinson privately but till now has not challenged him publicly, disputed the accusation of bias and was critical of some of his actions.
"I believe there has been no chilling effect, but I do think there have been instances of attempts to influence content from a political perspective that I do not consider appropriate," Ms. Mitchell, who plans to step down when her contract expires next year, said Friday.
Robert Coonrod, who stepped down as corporation president in July 2004, has known Mr. Tomlinson about 20 years and considers him a good friend. "I believe that his motives are exactly what he says they are," he said. Mr. Tomlinson is "trying to help the people in public broadcasting understand why some people in the conservative movement think PBS is hostile to them and, two, imbue public broadcasting with the notion of balance because he thinks that long term it's a winner in getting Congressional support."
"Whether people like the way he goes about it or not is a different issue," Mr. Coonrod added.
Though PBS's ratings have stabilized lately after several years of decline, the network has faced criticism that much of its programming - shows like "Antiques Roadshow" and "Masterpiece Theater" - is little different from what can be found on cable television. Though a huge bequest to National Public Radio from the estate of Joan Kroc, widow of the founder of McDonald's, has furthered the independence of public radio, corporate support and state financing for public television have slipped in recent years, making the nearly $400 million in federal money annually funneled through the corporation increasingly important.
Nor have administration officials and lawmakers been shy about challenging certain programming. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, for example, earlier this year publicly denounced a program featuring a cartoon rabbit named Buster who visited a pair of lesbian parents.
The corporation is a private, nonprofit entity financed by Congress to ensure the vitality of public television and radio. Tension is hardwired into its charter, where its mandate to ensure "objectivity and balance" is accompanied by an exhortation to maintain public broadcasting's independence. Mr. Tomlinson said that in his view, objectivity and balance meant "a program schedule that's not skewed in one direction or another." Some corporation board members say that complaints about ideological pressure are premature.
Beth Courtney, president and chief executive of Louisiana Public Broadcasting and one of three non-Republicans on the nine-member board, said there had been no chilling of journalistic efforts. "What we should look for are the real actions," she said. "We shouldn't speculate about people's motivations."
But Mr. Tomlinson's tenure has brought criticism that his chairmanship has been the most polarizing in a generation. Christy Carpenter, a Democratic appointee to the board from 1998 to 2002, said partisanship was "essentially nonexistent" in her first years. But once Mr. Tomlinson, a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest, joined in September 2000 and President Bush's election changed the board's political composition, the tenor changed, she said.
"There was an increasingly and disturbingly aggressive desire to be more involved and to push programming in a more conservative direction," said Ms. Carpenter, who is now a vice president of the Museum of Television and Radio. One of the more disturbing developments, she added, was a "very vehement dislike for Bill Moyers."
It is not a shock that Mr. Moyers's work exercised Mr. Tomlinson. He is a reliable source of agitation for conservatives, who complain that "Now" under Mr. Moyers (who left the show last year and was replaced by David Brancaccio) was consistently critical of Republicans and the Bush administration. Days after the Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 2002 elections, Mr. Moyers - an aide in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and a former newspaper publisher who has been associated with PBS since the 1970's - said the entire federal government was "united behind a right-wing agenda" that included "the power of the state to force pregnant women to give up control over their own lives."
In December 2003, three months after he was elected chairman, Mr. Tomlinson sent Ms. Mitchell of PBS a letter outlining his concerns. " 'Now With Bill Moyers' does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting," he wrote.
Shortly after, Mr. Tomlinson hired a consultant to review Mr. Moyers's program; one three-month contract cost $10,000. The reports Mr. Tomlinson saw placed the program's guests in categories like "anti-Bush," "anti-business" and "anti-Tom DeLay," referring to the House majority leader, corporation officials said. The reports found the guests were overwhelmingly anti-Bush, a conclusion Mr. Moyers disputed.
Mr. Moyers said on Friday that he did not know a content review was undertaken but that he was not surprised. "Tomlinson has waged a surreptitious and relentless campaign against 'Now' and me," he said, dismissing complaints that he is biased. Mr. Moyers left "Now" to write a book but is back on public television as host of the series "Wide Angle."
Mr. Tomlinson said he conducted the content review on his own, without sending the results to the board or making them public, because he wanted to better understand complaints he was hearing without provoking a storm. "If I wanted to be more destructive to public broadcasting but score political points, I would have come out with this study a year and a half ago," he said.
Recently, PBS refused for months to sign its latest contract with the corporation governing federal financing of national programming, holding up the release of $26.5 million. For the first time, the corporation argued that PBS's agreeing to abide by its own journalistic standards was not sufficient, but that it must adhere to the "objectivity and balance" language in the charter. In a January letter to the leaders of the three biggest producing stations, in New York, Boston and Washington, the deputy general counsel of PBS warned that this could give the corporation editorial control, infringing on its First Amendment rights and possibly leading to a demand for balance in each and every show.
The corporation said it had no such plans, and the contract was finally signed about a month ago.
Mr. Tomlinson did help get one program, "The Journal Editorial Report," on the air as a way of balancing "Now." Ms. Mitchell backed the program, but public broadcasting officials said Mr. Tomlinson was instrumental in lining up $5 million in corporate financing and pressing PBS to distribute it.
Public television executives noted that Mr. Gigot's show by design features the members of the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, while Mr. Moyers's guests included many conservatives, like Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition; Richard Viguerie, a conservative political strategist; and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Mr. Tomlinson said that it was his concerns about "objectivity and balance" that led to the creation of a new office of the ombudsman at the corporation to issue reports about public television and radio broadcasts. But the role of a White House official in setting up the office has raised questions among some public broadcasting executives about its independence. In March, after she had been hired by the corporation but was still at the White House as director of the Office of Global Communications, Mary Catherine Andrews helped draft the office's guiding principles, set up a Web page and prepare a news release about the appointment of the new ombudsmen, officials said.
Ms. Andrews said she undertook the work at the instruction of top officials at the corporation. "I was careful not to work on this project during office hours during my last days at the White House," she said.
Mr. Tomlinson has also occasionally worked with other White House officials on public broadcasting issues. Last year he enlisted the presidential adviser Karl Rove to help kill a legislative proposal that would change the composition of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's board by requiring the president to fill about half the seats with people who had experience in local radio and television. The proposal was dropped after Mr. Rove and the White House criticized it.
Mr. Tomlinson said he understood the need to reassure liberals that the traditions of public broadcasting, including public affairs programs, were not changing, "that we're not trying to put a wet blanket on this type of programming."
But his efforts to sow goodwill have shown that what he says he tries to project is sometimes read in a different way. Last November, members of the Association of Public Television Stations met in Baltimore along with officials from the corporation and PBS. Mr. Tomlinson told them they should make sure their programming better reflected the Republican mandate.
Mr. Tomlinson said that his comment was in jest and that he couldn't imagine how remarks at "a fun occasion" were taken the wrong way. Others, though, were not amused.
"I was in that room," said Ms. Mitchell. "I was surprised by the comment. I thought it was inappropriate."
Stephen Labaton reported from Washington for this article, Lorne Manly from New York and Elizabeth Jensen from Columbus, Ohio.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company