Outlook for CPB murky after official's departure

Tomlinson pushed for rightward political tilt, retains friends on board

November 05, 2005|By NICK MADIGAN AND CHRIS KALTENBACH | NICK MADIGAN AND CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN REPORTERS

The departure this week of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson from the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an organization he was chairman of until recently, has deepened the ideological fissures in its corporate structure and left its future murkier than ever, observers and critics said yesterday.

Tomlinson had been widely disparaged outside the CPB for trying to tilt it rightward politically. He was accused also of skirting normal procedures in hiring top-level officials who shared his desire for conservative voices in public broadcasting, including Cheryl F. Halpern, who succeeded him as chairman when his term ended in September and who has given considerable sums of money to Republican candidates.

What was clear from the manner of his departure - officially a resignation - was that Tomlinson retains friends on the board. In a brief statement issued Thursday, board members commended Tomlinson for "his legitimate efforts to achieve balance and objectivity in public broadcasting."

The board, which met at a secret location for three days this week before announcing Tomlinson's departure, declined to say why he was let go. Its statement referred to "former key staff members whose responsibility it was to advise the board and its members."

The mystery might become clearer with the expected release on Nov. 14 of a report from the CPB's inspector-general, Kenneth A. Konz, who began investigating allegations against Tomlinson six months ago.

Konz examined Tomlinson's decision to spend more than $14,000 in taxpayers' money to study the political bent of public broadcasting, particularly the program Now with Bill Moyers, and to hire Republican lobbyists and consultants to advise him on working with Congress.

"While the board may have dropped Tomlinson, it's clear they have not dropped his ideas," said a statement from Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, which describes itself as a nonpartisan advocacy organization designed to hold elected leaders accountable to the public.

"It is unfortunate that the public can only guess at the inspector-general's conclusions, since his report remains under wraps. Even more distressing is the tone of the board's statement, which fails to reflect any regret that Tomlinson's methods were unacceptable and unethical."

The CPB, Pingree said, needs to do more than expel one board member. "It needs to shift its direction away from partisanship and active discouragement of fact-based journalism," she said in the statement.

The CPB, set up by Congress to protect public broadcasting from political interference, distributes federal funds to public television and radio stations. It is prohibited from producing, distributing or scheduling shows.

Rep. David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who called in May for an investigation into what he called Tomlinson's "questionable tactics to exert political influence over public broadcasting," was flying to Wisconsin yesterday and could not be reached for comment. In a statement released by his office, however, he blamed the White House for Tomlinson's actions. Obey's complaints led to Konz's investigation.

"This administration believes that since they control all branches of government, they can abuse the public trust and get away with it, and Mr. Tomlinson is part of this pattern," Obey said. "Mr. Tomlinson's resignation should be used to bring people together, not divide them as he and the administration have done. Public broadcasting is too important to be anybody's partisan or ideological play thing."

Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who joined Obey in calling for an investigation, called Tomlinson's departure "long overdue."

"We will need to determine how to stop this kind of misbehavior in the future," Dingell said. "The corporation is funded completely with federal funds. It has an obligation to operate with transparency and without partisan motivation in all of its actions and decision-making."

With Tomlinson's allies still on the board, his vision "to transform public broadcasting and make them more acceptable to conservatives is firmly in place," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Much of what the investigation of Tomlinson turned up remains unknown, said Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel .org, an online media watchdog group. "I think there are a lot more serious charges to come," Schechter said. Tomlinson "has been a flak-catcher and, in a sense, diverted attention away from a lot of the other issues that have been raised about the politicization of the CPB.

"Public broadcasting, for many years, was the poster child of liberal media and was attacked routinely and regularly by right-wing activists. They haven't liked, and don't like, independent documentaries."

At the Media Research Center, which critiques what it sees as left-wing bias in the media, Tim Graham, director of media analysis, said liberal interest groups want "a CPB that hands out the checks and wants nothing."

"Conservatives have felt from the beginning that, if we're sending tax dollars to Washington to fund public broadcasting, we should have a voice," Graham said. "I don't think the CPB board has mattered much for a long time. Tomlinson's offense here is that he made the CPB board matter for a year or two."

The Tomlinson affair, he said, is "all about liberal intimidation."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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