In his first public address since leaving PBS six months ago, journalist Bill Moyers responds to charges by Kenneth Tomlinson–the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting–of liberal bias and revelations that Tomlinson hired a consultant to monitor the political content of Moyers’ PBS show “Now.” We spend the hour playing an excerpt of Moyers’ closing address at the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, Missouri. [includes rush transcript]
Over 2,000 people converged in St. Louis Missouri this weekend for the second-ever National Conference on Media Reform. Few issues were discussed as much as the future of public broadcasting in this country.
The conference was held amid accusations that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been largely taken over by conservatives who are influencing programming and hiring decisions.
In April, the CBP board did not renew the contract of its chief executive, Kathleen Cox. Board Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson tapped Ken Ferree — a former top aide to Michael Powell at the Federal Communications Commission–to be her temporary replacement.
Tomlinson has said he aims to achieve political balance on the public airwaves. He has denied any changes have been made for political reasons.
But Tomlinson has publicly criticized one of PBS’ best known shows–NOW–the weekly show formerly hosted by Bill Moyers.
In an Op-Ed in the Washington Times, the chair of the CPB–Ken Tomlinson wrote “The image of the left-wing bias of ”NOW” — unchallenged by a balancing point of view on public broadcasting’s Friday evening lineup — was unhealthy. Indeed, it jeopardized essential support for public TV.”
Tomlinson went on to write, “This was brought home to me in November 2003 by a phone call from an old friend complaining about Mr. Moyers” bias and the lack of balance on the Friday evening lineup. He explained the foundation he heads made a six-figure contribution to his local public television station for digital conversion. But he declared there would be no more contributions until something was done about the network’s bias.”
A month after Tomlinson received that letter, Tomlinson sent the head of PBS–Pat Mitchell — a letter charging that “Now” “does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.”
In addition, the New York Times reported Tomlinson secretly spent $10,000 to hire a consultant to monitor the political leanings of Moyers’ show.
Until now Bill Moyers had not responded publicly to Tomlinson’s accusations. But yesterday he gave the closing address at the National Conference on Media Reform. It was his first major address since leaving the anchor chair.
- Bill Moyers, speaking at the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, Missouri, May 15, 2005. The conference was organized by Free Press.
[NOTE: Below is the transcript to the excerpts of the speech aired on Democracy Now! The transcript to the entire speech is online here.]
BILL MOYERS: The story I’ve come to share with you goes to the core of our belief that the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell this story because I’ve been living it. As Dr. Wilson said, it’s been in the news this week, including more tax on a single journalist, yours truly, by the right wing media and their friends at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As you know, CPB was established almost forty years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting and to be a firewall between political influence and program content. What some on its board are now doing today, led by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, is too important, too disturbing, and yes, even dangerous for a gathering like this not to address it. We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age old ambition of power and ideology to squelch — to punish the journalist who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable.
First, let me assure you that I take in stride attacks by the radical right wingers who have not given up demonizing me although I retired over six months ago. They’ve been after me for years now, and I suspect they will be stomping on my grave to make sure I don’t come back from the dead. I should point out to them that one of our boys pulled it off some two thousand years ago after the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Caesar surrogates thought they had shut him up for good. I won’t be expecting that kind of miracle, but I should put my detractors on notice, they might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.
Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control using the government to threaten and intimidate; I mean the people who are hollowing out middle class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class to make sure Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil; I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into Karl Rove’s slush fund; who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets; I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy. That’s who I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s okay to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.
One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at ”NOW” didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.
Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal. You’ll also want to read his book Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of US Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era. Mermin quotes David Ignatius of The Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism. “The rules of the game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up on an issue without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator So-and-so hasn’t criticized postwar planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius, “it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”
Mermin also quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer, whom I greatly respect, acknowledging that unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists not discussing the occupation of Iraq? “Because,” says Jim Lehrer, “the word 'occupation' was never mentioned in the run up to the war. Washington talked about the war as a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism,” says Lehrer, “never even looked at the issue of occupation.” “In other words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about it, we don’t report it.” He concludes, “Lehrer’s somewhat jarring declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that their reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous occupation that has followed the liberation of Iraq, reveals just how far the actual practice of American journalism has deviated from the First Amendment idea of a press that is independent of government.”
Take the example, also cited by Mermin, of Charles Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press whose 2003 story of the torture of Iraqis in American prisons before a U.S. Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced, was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact, (quote), “it was not an officially-sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source. Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with Beltway journalists of American officials denying that such things happened.”
Judith Miller of The New York Times, among others, relied on that credibility, relied on that credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. So the rules of the game permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.
I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity. In my documentaries, whether on the Watergate scandal thirty years ago, or the Iran-Contra conspiracy twenty years ago, or Bill Clinton’s fundraising scandals ten years ago, or five years ago the chemical industry’s long and despicable cover up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products, I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity was not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference. I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies, as well as the big lie of people in power.
In no way — in no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence.
This is always hard to do, but it’s never been harder. Without a trace of irony, the powers that be have appropriated the Newspeak vernacular of George Orwell’s 1984. They give us a program vowing no child will be left behind, while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged children; they give us legislation cheerily calling for clear skies and healthy forests that give us neither, while turning over our public lands to the energy industry. In Orwell’s 1984 the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society’s dictionary, explains to the protagonist, Winston, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050 at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we’re having right now. The whole climate of thought,” he said, “will be different. In fact, there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
Hear me: an unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.
I grew up in the South, where the truth about slavery, race and segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms and driven from the news rooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and then it took another hundred years for the truth to make us free. Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that might makes right, we circled the wagons, listened only to each other and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.
I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They wanted us to make it different from anything else on the air, commercial or public broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a venue to people who might not otherwise be heard. That wasn’t a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed by studies published in two leading peer-reviewed scholarly journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College’s William Hoynes, who was here at this conference until this morning when he had to leave early. Their extensive research on the content of public television over a decade found that political discussions on our public affairs programs generally included a limited set of voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives on current issues and events. Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates, the kind that might engage viewers as citizens and not simply as audiences, this research found that public affairs programs on PBS stations were populated by the standard set of elite news sources, where the government officials and Washington journalists talking about political strategy or corporate sources talking about stock prices or the economy from the investors’ viewpoint.
Public television unfortunately all too often was offering the same kind of discussions and a similar brand of insider discourse that is featured regularly on commercial television. They just weren’t so noisy. Who didn’t appear was also revealing. In contrast to the conservative mantra that public television routinely featured the voices of antiestablishment critics, the studies found that alternative perspectives were rare on public television and were effectively drowned out by the stream of government and corporate views that represented the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts. The so-called experts who got most of the face time came primarily from mainstream news organizations and Washington think tanks rather than diverse interests. Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted through the views of business people, investors and business journalists. Voices outside the corporate Wall Street universe, nonprofessional workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general public were rarely heard.
In sum, these two studies concluded, the economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities of most citizens became irrelevant. All of this went against the Broadcasting Act of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy assistant to President Johnson, I attended in 1964 my first meeting to discuss the future of public broadcasting in the office of the Commissioner of Education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and to reflect the diversity of the American people.
We knew that the success of NOW’s journalism was creating a backlash in Washington. The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party. That’s because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth.
This is the point of my story. Ideologues don’t want you to go beyond the typical labels of left and right because people may start believing you. They embrace a world view that cannot be proven wrong because they will admit no evidence to the contrary. They want your reporting to validate their belief system and when it doesn’t, God forbid. Never mind that their own stars were getting a fair shake on ”NOW,” Gigot, Viguerie, David Keen of the American Conservative Union, Steven Moore of the Club for Growth. Our reporting — our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn’t the party line. It wasn’t that we were getting it wrong, either. Only three times in three years did we err factually, and in each case we corrected those errors as soon as we confirmed their inaccuracy. I believe our broadcast was the best researched on public broadcasting.
And the problem was that we were telling stories that partisans in power didn’t want told, and we were getting it right, not rightwing. Let me tell you something — and we can argue about this at some other time — I’ve always thought the American eagle needed a left wing and a right wing. The right wing would see to it that economic interests had their legitimate concerns addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary people were included in the bargain. And both would keep the great bird on course. But with two right wings or two left wings, it’s no longer an eagle, and it’s going to crash.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that my occasional — and I didn’t do them that often — my occasional commentaries got to them, as well. Although apparently he never watched the broadcast — I guess he couldn’t take the diversity — Senator Trent Lott came out squealing like a stuck pig when, after the mid-term elections in 2002, I described what was likely to happen now that all three branches of government were about to be controlled by one party dominated by the religious, corporate and political right. Instead of congratulating the winners for their election victory as some network broadcasters did or celebrating their victory as Fox, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, Talk Radio and other partisan Republican journalists did, I provided a little independent analysis of what the victory meant. And I did it the old-fashioned way. I looked at the record, took the winners at their word and drew the logical conclusions that they would use power as they had said for twenty-five years they would. And then, of course, I set it forth in my usual modest Texas way.
Events since then have confirmed the accuracy of what I said. I had our research team, and I worked very much with them, put together with mainstream news clippings to support every sentence in that particular post-election analysis. But then strange things began to happen. Friends in Washington called to say that they had heard of muttered threats that the PBS reauthorization would be held up unless Moyers is dealt with. The Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to be quite agitated. I didn’t know it at the time, but within two months after taking over, three months after taking over, he wrote a letter to PBS complaining about the unbalanced ”NOW.”
Apparently there was apoplexy in the right wing area, particularly when I closed the broadcast one Friday night by putting a flag in my lapel and said — well, here’s exactly what I said. Here’s a copy of what I said: “I wore my flag tonight, first time. Until now I haven’t thought it necessary to display a little metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties, speak my mind and do my best to raise our kids to be good Americans. Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of gratitude that I had been born in a country whose institutions sustain me, whose armed forces protected me and whose ideals inspired me. I offered my heart’s affection in return. It no more occurred to me to flaunt the flag on my chest than it did to pin my mother’s picture on my lapel to prove her son’s love. Mother knew where I stood. So does my country. I even tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15th. So what’s this doing here? I put it on to take it back. The flag’s been hijacked and turned into a logo, the trademark — the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On most Sunday morning talk shows, official chests appear adorned with the flag as if it’s the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come? No administration’s patriotism is ever in doubt, only its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from error. When I see flags sprouting on official labels, I think of the time in China when I saw Mao’s Little Red Book of orthodoxy on every official’s desk, omnipresent and unread.
“But more galling than anything are all those moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag in their lapel while writing books and running web sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as un-American. They are people whose ardor for war grows disproportionately to their distance from the fighting. They’re in the same league as those swarms of corporate lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill for tax breaks, even as they call for spending more on war.
“So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks. or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don’t have to make it, or approve of bribing governments to join the 'Coalition of the Willing.' I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the government, and it reminds me that it’s not un-American to think that war, except in self defense, is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country.”
That did it. That did it. You should have heard Ann Coulter at the next conservative convention. I think that’s where she got the title for her book, her book about Democrats and treason. That did it. And our continued reporting on overpricing at Halliburton, chicanery on K Street and the heavy, if divinely-guided hand, of Tom DeLay.
When Senator Lott protested that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has not seemed willing to deal with Bill Moyers, a new member of the board, a Republican fundraiser named Cheryl Halpern, who had been appointed by President Bush, agreed that CPB needed more power to do just that sort of thing. She left no doubt about the kind of penalty she would like to see imposed on the malefactors.
Now, hear me again: as rumors circulated about all this, I asked to meet with the entire CBS board — I wanted to — CPB Board, thank you. I wanted to hear for myself what they were saying. I thought it would be helpful for someone like me who had been present at the creation and part of the system for almost forty years, to talk about how CPB had been intended to be a heat shield to protect public broadcasters from exactly this kind of intimidation. After all, I’d been there at the time of Richard Nixon’s attempted coup. In those days, public television had been really feisty and independent and often targeted for attacks. A Woody Allen special that poked fun at Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration had actually been cancelled. Jon Stewart wouldn’t have stood a chance if he had started his career on PBS. The White House had been so outraged over a documentary called “The Banks and the Poor” about discrimination, about rich financial institutions against the poor, that PBS was driven to adopt new guidelines. That didn’t satisfy Nixon, and when public television hired two NBC reporters, the radicals Robert McNeil and Sander Vanocur to co-anchor some new broadcast, it was, for Nixon, the last straw. According to White House memos at the time, he was determined, (quote), “to get the left wing commentators who are cutting us up off public television at once; indeed, yesterday, if possible.” Sound familiar?
Nixon vetoed the authorization for CPB with a message written in part by his sidekick and soul mate, Pat Buchanan, who castigated Vanocur, McNeil, “Washington Week in Review,” “Black Journal” and Bill Moyers as, (quote), “unbalanced against the administration.” It is familiar. I always knew Nixon would be back, again and again. I just didn’t know that this time he would ask to be Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Buchanan and Nixon succeeded in cutting CPB funding for all public affairs programming, except for “Black Journal.” They knocked out most of your funding for the National Public Affairs Center for Television, otherwise known as NPACT. And they voted to take away from the PBS staff the ultimate responsibility for the production of programming.
But in those days — and this is what I wanted to share with Kenneth Tomlinson, who I have never met, and his colleagues on the CPB board — in those days there were still Republicans in America who did not march in ideological lockstep and who stood on principle against politicizing public television. The chairman of the public station in Dallas was an industrialist named Ralph Rogers, a Republican but no party hack, who saw the White House intimidation as an assault on freedom of the press and led a nationwide effort to stop it. The chairman at the time of the CPB was a former Republican Congressman, Thomas Curtis, from here in St. Louis — from here in Missouri, who was also a principled man. He resigned, claiming White House interference. Within a few months, the crisis was over. CPB maintained its independence, PBS grew in strength, and Richard Nixon would face impeachment and resign for violating the public trust and not just public broadcasting. Paradoxically, the very — talk about justice. In fact, I once asked a wise — a friend of mine, a wise old man in Washington, what he had learned from life, could he reduce it to one sentence? And he said, “Yes. There ain’t no justice in the world. Now, get on with it.”
But here was cosmic justice. The very Public Affairs Center for Television that Nixon had tried to kill, NPACT, put PBS on the map by re-broadcasting in prime time each day’s Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night after night and establishing PBS as an ally of democracy. We should still be doing that sort of thing. C-SPAN, bless its heart, shouldn’t be the only channel that lets us see how democracy works.
That was thirty-three years ago and I thought the current CPB board would like to hear and talk about the importance of standing up to political interference. I was wrong. They wouldn’t meet with me. I tried three times and failed three times, and it was all downhill after that. I was naive, I guess. I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying out for the White House. But that’s what Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing. On Fox News this week he denied he’s carrying out a White House mandate or that he’s ever had any conversation with any Bush administration official about PBS. But The New York Times reports that he enlisted Karl Rove to help kill a proposal that would have put on the CPB board people with experience in local radio and television.
It was also reported that on the recommendation of administration officials, he hired a White House flack — I know the genre — named Mary Catherine Andrews, as a senior staff member at CPB. While she was still reporting to Karl Rove at the White House, she set up CPB’s new ombudsman office and had a hand in hiring the two people who will fill it, one of them who once worked for Tomlinson, the other a very respected journalist. But this is an anomaly. A political organization can’t have an ombudsman. CPB is not a journalistic or newsgathering organization. PBS can have one. WGBH can have one. WNET can have one. But for a political organization to have two ombudsmen or one ombudsman or a dozen? I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t.
According to a book written about the Reader’s Digest when he was with — when he was its Editor-in-Chief, he surrounded himself with other right wingers, a pattern he’s now following for the staff at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I’ve already mentioned Miss Andrews. Well, for Acting President he hired Ken Ferree from the FCC who was Michael Powell’s enforcer when Powell was deciding how to go about allowing the big media companies to get even bigger. One of Ferree’s jobs, as Jeff Chester will say in his book coming out in the next several months, was to engage in tactics designed to dismiss any serious objection to more media monopolies. And according to Eric Alterman, Ferree was even more contemptuous than Michael Powell of public participation in the process of determining media ownership. It was Ferree who decided to issue a protective order designed to keep secret the market research on which the Republican majority on the commission based their vote to permit greater media consolidation.
Now, let me say, it is not likely that with a guy like that as the chief operating officer of the CPB you’re going to find any public television producer say, “Hey, let’s do something on how big media is affecting democracy.” Because what this leads to is preventive capitulation.
As everyone knows, Mr. Tomlinson has put up a considerable sum of money, allegedly over five million dollars, your money, for the new weekly broadcast featuring Paul Gigot and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. Now, Gigot is a smart journalist, a sharp editor and a fine fellow. I had him on ”NOW” several times, and I even proposed to PBS that he become a regular contributor on our show, the conversation of democracy, remember? All stripes. But I confess to some puzzlement that The Wall Street Journal, which in the past editorialized to cut PBS off the public tap, is now being subsidized by American taxpayers when its parent company, Dow Jones, had revenues in the first quarter of this year, of four hundred million dollars. I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it.
But in this weird deal, you get a glimpse of the kind of programming Mr. Tomlinson apparently seems to prefer. Alone of the big major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, has no op-ed page where different opinions can compete with its right wing editorials. The _Journal_’s PBS broadcast is just as homogenous: right wingers talking to each other. I think, Bob McChesney, you ought to demand equal time for Katrina vanden Heuvel and the editors of The Nation, or for Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, now there’s an idea for you. You want public broadcasting to be balanced against all these elite establishment voices that get heard? Get Amy on public television.
We didn’t know this a year ago. We just learned it from The New York Times two weeks ago that last year Mr. Tomlinson had spend ten thousand dollars to hire a contractor who would watch my show and report on political bias. That’s right. He spent ten thousand dollars of your money to hire a guy to watch ”NOW” to find out who my guests were and what my stories were. Ten thousand dollars. Gee, Ken, for two dollars and fifty cents a week, you could pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save you up to sixty-two percent. Or, for that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the show. You could have made it easier with a double Jim Beam, your favorite. Or you could — mine, too. We have some things in common. Or you could go online, where the listings are posted. Hell, Ken, you could have called me collect, and I would have told you who we were having on the show.
The public paid for that study, but Ken Tomlinson acts as if he owns it. Let’s see it. You can watch my bias. You can watch my mistakes. You can watch everything I do right there on the air. We have the funders listed, everything is there, it’s all listed. But he won’t do it. In a May 10th op-ed piece in Reverend Moon’s conservative Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson maintained he had not released the findings because public broadcasting is such a delicate institution he did not want to, (quote), “damage public broadcasting’s image with controversy.” Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that kind of stuff every day.
As we learned this week, that’s not the only news Mr. Tomlinson tried to keep to himself. As Dr. Wilson indicated, and as reported by Jeff Chester’s Center for Digital Democracy, which the Human Center for Media and Democracy also support, there were two public opinion surveys commissioned by CPB, but not released to the media, not even to PBS and NPR. According to a source who talked to Salon.com, the first results were too good and Tomlinson didn’t believe them. After the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of polling, and they thought they’d get worse results, but they didn’t.
This is the man, by the way, who was running the Voice of America back in 1984 when a fanatic named Charlie Wick was politicizing the United States Information Agency of which Voice of America was a part. It turned out there was a blacklist of people who had been removed from the list of prominent Americans sent abroad to lecture on behalf of America and the USIA. What’s more, it was discovered that evidence as to how those people were chosen to be on the blacklist, more than seven hundred documents, had been shredded. Among those on the blacklist of journalists, writers, scholars and politicians were dangerous left wing subversives like Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin, Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Ben Bradley, Coretta Scott King and David Brinkley.
The person who took the fall for the blacklist was another right winger. He resigned. Shortly thereafter, so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who was one of six people in the agency with the authority to see the list of potential speakers and allowed to strike people’s names. Let me be clear: I don’t know, and there’s no record of what position Kenneth Tomlinson took, whether he supported the blacklist or opposed it or what he thinks of it now. I actually hoped Bill O’Reilly would have asked him about it when he appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” this week. He didn’t. Instead, Tomlinson went on attacking me with O’Reilly egging him on, and went on denying he was carrying out a partisan mandate. The only time you could be sure he was telling the truth was at the end of the broadcast when he said to O’Reilly, “We love your show.” We? We love your show? He’s entitled to his opinion. He’s entitled to his politics. He’s entitled to contribute exclusively, as he does to conservative candidates for public office. That’s all fine. Our political system encourages it and tolerates it. But he is not entitled to stand in judgment on other people’s bias.
On Friday I wrote Kenneth Tomlinson. I asked him to sit down with me for an hour on PBS and talk about all this. I said, “You can choose the moderator, although I don’t see that we need one, two civilized human beings sitting and talking about these important issues affecting the future of a medium we both profess to love.” I said, “You can choose the guidelines.” But there’s one thing in particular — and I’m about to close. There’s one thing in particular I would like to ask him about. In that op-ed essay this week in The Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson talks of a phone call from an old friend complaining about Bill Moyers’s bias. The friend explained that the foundation he heads made a six figure contribution to his local public television station for digital conversion. But he declared, and I’m quoting Tomlinson, “There would be no more contributions until something was done about the network’s bias.”
Apparently, that’s Kenneth Tomlinson’s method of governance. Money talks and buys the influence it wants. But I’d like to ask him to listen to a different voice. This letter came to me last year, five pages of handwriting. It said, in essence, and I’m going to do some direct quoting: “After the worst sneak attack in our history, there has not been a moment to reflect, a moment to let the horror resonate, to feel the pain and regroup as humans. No, since I lost my husband on 9/11, not only our family’s world but the whole world seems to have gotten even worse than that tragic day. On 9/11, my husband was not on duty. He was home with me having coffee. Our own family story on that day is long and complicated. My daughter and grandson, living only five blocks from the tower, had to be evacuated with marks, terror all around. My other daughter, near the Brooklyn Bridge, my son in high school. But my Charlie took off like a lightning bolt to be with his men from the special operations command. 'Bring my gear to the plaza,' he told his aid immediately after the first plane struck the north tower. In comparison to using semantic technicalities, passing the responsibility or not having all the facts, he took action based on the responsibility he felt for his job and his men and for those towers he loved. In the Fire Department of New York chain of command, rules extend to every captain of every firehouse in the city. If anything happens in the firehouse at any time, even if the captain isn’t on duty and is on vacation, that captain is responsible for everything that goes on there twenty-four/seven. Why then,” she asks, “are the people in Washington responsible for nothing? Why do they pass the blame for what happened that day, for the failure of the system, for the torture at Abu Ghraib, for sending young soldiers into an immoral war, under-equipped, under-trained and under-protected? Why is there no leadership? We need more programs like 'NOW' to wake us up,” she said. “More programs like 'NOW' and your series with Joseph Campbell, which my husband and I so enjoyed watching together. Such programs must continue amidst the sea of false images and name calling that divide America now. Such programs give us hope that search will continue to get this imperfect human condition on to a higher plain. So thank you and all of those who work with you at Channel 13, my flagship station, and PBS. Without public broadcasting, all we would call news would be very carefully controlled propaganda.”
Framed above my desk at my office is the check she made out to Channel 13, ”NOW,” for five hundred dollars. When I go discouraged or need to remind myself that public media truly matter, I look at that check and think of the woman who wrote it and the husband who did his duty, and their belief in us. And I will take, over the big check that Ken Tomlinson could have gotten from a demanding right winger, I would take the widow’s mite any day.