CPB Chairman Tomlinson steps down

Tenure marked by efforts to stamp out what he called liberal bias in public broadcasting

September 27, 2005|By Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman | Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who led a charge against what he called the liberal slant in public broadcasting, ended his tumultuous two-year term as Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting yesterday, yielding the gavel to another Republican appointee with similar views if not a similar style.

"I've enjoyed about as much of this as i can stand," Tomlinson said as he convened the last meeting of his tenure as chairman, one of the most divisive chapters in the corporation's 38-year history. He will remain on the board for at least a year.

It remains unclear whether the controversy that flared during his term will abate. The board elected two Republicans to fill the posts of chairwoman and vice chairwoman, Cheryl F. Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines, despite a plea for bipartisanship by Ernest J. Wilson III, one of the two Democrats on the eight-member board.

Halpern signaled in her opening remarks that her tone, at least, would be different from that of her sometimes outspoken predecessor.

"Our goal - whether it's in our support of educational children's television, insightful features and documentaries, or entertainment that sparkles - is to make public broadcasting a haven for the mind and for the spirit," Halpern said. "We have a duty to provide the public an explanation for the kind of work we do, and we must honor the principles clearly stated in our charter: to encourage objective and balanced programming."

Tomlinson's chairmanship was a time of unusual contentiousness at the private nonprofit, which distributes federal funding to local stations. His efforts to stamp out what he termed a liberal bias in public broadcasting prompted some broadcasting officials and Democratic lawmakers to accuse him of undermining the corporation's role as a political firewall. Tomlinson maintained that he was trying to strengthen the system by expanding its appeal.

Halpern, a New Jersey civic activist, was appointed by President Bush to the CPB board three years ago. She and her family have given more than $400,000 to Republican candidates and party committees since 1989, according to Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics. Gaines, another Bush appointee, and her family have given about $500,000 to GOP causes in the same period.

Halpern also has close ties to Tomlinson; they served together on the board that oversees the government's international broadcasting services. Shortly after her appointment, Halpern alarmed some broadcasters when she said the CPB should have more authority to hold broadcasters responsible for unbalanced reporting.

"There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability," she told the Senate Commerce Committee during her confirmation hearing in November 2003, according to Current, a public broadcasting trade publication.

After the board meeting yesterday, Halpern was pressed by reporters on whether she shared Tomlinson's view of bias in the system. Halpern demurred, saying that two recently hired ombudsmen are now responsible for fielding those kinds of complaints.

"We will not be intervening within programming," she said.

The new chairwoman stressed her interest in educational television, saying she hopes to extend public programming to preteens and early teens. "Many parents are right to be concerned about the kind of television their children see every day," she said.

Her election drew mixed reactions.

In a statement congratulating Halpern, PBS President Pat Mitchell said that she expects the new chairwoman "will honor and respect PBS' independent, nonpartisan mandate."

National Public Radio spokeswoman Andi Sporkin said she hopes Halpern will change the direction of the corporation, which she said has "become an instrument of ideology and agenda" during the past six months. "Our hope is that the new leadership acknowledges the value Congress and millions of Americans have placed on public broadcasting's service and integrity, restores the vital firewall, and rights the course of CPB," she said.

Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, compared Halpern's election to the appointment of Michael Brown, who resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina.

Tomlinson was elected chairman in 2003 and soon began pushing for more conservative voices on public television and radio. The bulk of his criticism centered on Bill Moyers, a commentator and former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who sharply criticized the Bush administration in commentaries on his program Now before retiring in December.

Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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