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CPB Chief Tomlinson Comes Under Fire For Secretly Monitoring Political Content of Public Broadcasting

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The head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, came under fire from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) at a Senate panel Monday for his decision to secretly monitor public television and radio programs, and about other controversial moves that have led to calls for his resignation. We play an excerpt of the hearing. [includes rush transcript]

The head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, came under fire from a Senate panel Monday for his decision to secretly monitor public television and radio programs, and about other controversial moves that have led to calls for his resignation.

The nearly two-hour exchange was the first time Tomlinson was directly questioned about recent allegations regarding his 22-month tenure as chairman.

Republican Senator of Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, scheduled the hearing to discuss funding for the corporation, which provides federal money to public broadcasters. Under its mandate from Congress, the CPB is required to act as an independent buffer between lawmakers and public broadcasters. But under Tomlinson’s leadership, accusations have grown of an increasing politicization at the CPB.

Last year, Tomlinson secretly paid more than $14,000 to an outside consultant, to monitor the political content of the guests on the PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers. The consultant, Fred Mann, worked for the American Conservative Union for many years. Mann also monitored National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” and the PBS talk shows “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered” and “Tavis Smiley.” Politicians and journalists who expressed opinions critical of the Bush administration were dubbed liberal or anti-Bush.

NPR has reported they had obtained emails from a CPB official that showed that Tomlinson had conferred with the White House in hiring decisions and in shaping policy at the corporation. The CPB’s most recent hire is Patricia Harrison, who began her job as chief executive of the CPB last week. Harrison was a high-ranking official at the State Department. From 1997 until January 2001, she was co-chair of the RNC, helping to raise money for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.

In her first public appearance since she began the job last week, Harrison sought to assure the subcommittee that her partisan background would not affect her performance as CEO. She said, “I feel confident that I’m a fair person, that I have a great deal of integrity and that nobody owns me, ever.” PBS President Pat Mitchell and John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations also testified at Monday’s hearing along with David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute.

The sharpest questioning of Tomlinson yesterday came from Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate. He was one of sixteen senators who signed a letter calling on Tomlinson to resign. This is an excerpt of the exchange.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) questioning CPB chair Kenneth Tomlinson, Senate subcommittee hearing, July 11, 2005.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of the exchange between Durbin and Tomlinson.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: This is an issue on the minds of a lot of people. What’s happening to Public Broadcasting? Are we going through some effort now to politicize this, to change the nature and philosophy of something that we value very much in this country? I’m a fan, have been for a long time. Obviously, I’m not alone; when you read the surveys of people asking them what they think about Public Broadcasting, it’s pretty good. Over a thousand adults polled, PBS and NPR had an 80% favorable rating. Not a single one of us on this side of the panel would look askance at that number. 80% favorable is pretty good. And when you ask if it’s fair and balanced, not to steal a line from some other company, 55% said PBS programming is, 79% said NPR is fair and balanced.

And that’s why it strikes me as odd, Mr. Tomlinson, that we’re on this crusade of a sort here, this mission to change what’s going on. I don’t quite get it, understand what you’re agenda is here and what you’re trying to achieve. I read, I watched over the break Mr. Moyers’s speech in St. Louis, ordered a copy online, read it twice. It’s troubling to me. I think Bill Moyers’s program “Now” was a balanced program. And I think most people would agree with it. Now, Mr. Mann that you hired or someone hired to monitor this program came up with some rather strange conclusions about who’s a liberal and who’s a conservative and who’s a friend of the President and who isn’t. And it, you know, even I think in your opening statement you have tried to clarify that you don’t stand by his conclusions. So, for example, on Senator Hagel, characterization of Senator Hagel as liberal, and such. Maybe you do think he’s a liberal. I don’t know what that conclusion might be.

But the point I’d like to get to is this. Let’s go to a specific question. Under Section 19 of Public Broadcasting Act you’re retired to mandate political balance on all shows. It’s been reported that you have championed the addition of ”Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” to the PBS lineup and that you’ve raised money for that purpose. I’d like you to clarify. If you did that, how much money was raised? What was your purpose in bringing in The Wall Street Journal, which has been noted is a publication owned by a company that’s been very profitable and wouldn’t appear to need a subsidy to put on a show?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Well, I want — I think Senator Stevens hit the nail on the head. No bias, no bias from the left, no bias from the right. If we have programs like the Moyers program that tilt clearly to the left, then I think it’s to — according to the law, we need to have a program that goes along with it that tilts to the right and lets the people decide.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Let me ask you about this clearly to the left bias on the Moyers show. How did you reach that conclusion? Did you watch a lot of those shows?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I watched a lot of those shows, and I think Mr. Mann’s research demonstrates that the program was clearly liberal advocacy journalism. It was good broadcasting. Bill Moyers is a very capable broadcaster, but it seems to me we should be able to agree that we don’t want bias, and if we do in the interest of provoking debate, if we have some bias on Public Television, just balance it out in the course of the evening. It’s common sense.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: What was Mr. Mann’s expertise? Why did you happen to hire him? According to Senator Dorgan who’s seen the raw date, he was paid thousands of dollars, his data riddled with spelling errors was faxed to you from a Hallmark store in downtown Indianapolis. What is this Mann’s background for judging a program like Moyers’s program and whether it’s liberal or not?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Well, he worked for twenty years for the National Journalism Center, which is a 401(c)(3) organization.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: National Journalism Center?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: National Journalism Center.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: What is that? I don’t —

KENNETH TOMLINSON: But the point of watching it —

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Excuse me, what is the National Journalism Center?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: It’s a center here in Washington that found internships for —

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And they’re straight down the middle of the road, moderate centrist group, right and left?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I think it was — it qualified for 401(c)(3) support, but I think it was regarded as right of center. But the point is, you know, it’s like Bob Dylan said, you know, you don’t need a weather vane to see which way the wind is blowing. It was very clear that the Moyers program was liberal advocacy —- advocacy journalism. I wanted the statistical basis, because I didn’t think people were responding appropriately. We got the statistical basis. And as soon -—


KENNETH TOMLINSON: From Mr. Mann’s research. And as soon as we got the statistical basis, it turned out that other people had determined that program should be balanced. It was balanced. All this took place something like a year and a half ago.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I got to get to the basic question here. I won’t go through the list of some of Mr. Moyers’s more liberal guests — Frank Gaffney, Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie, Paul Gigot —- on his liberal program -—

KENNETH TOMLINSON: It is our experience —

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: But let me ask you this if I can: Did you feel that it was your responsibility or authority to go out and put together the ”Wall Street Editorial Page” show and to find subsidy for that? Did you feel that that was your responsibility to do?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I felt that the law required us to reflect balance in our current affairs programming. I was not the only one involved in encouraging a program that represented a diverse point of view from the Moyers show.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: So following Mr. Moyers’s comments in St. Louis, can we expect you to do the same for The Nation magazine? Are you going to raise $5 million to make sure they have a show?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: I don’t see — I don’t see today we have a balance problem. We have a 30-minute show, “Now,” and we have a 30-minute show, The Wall Street Journal. That’s balanced. Let the people decide. Balance is common sense.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: But, Mr. Tomlinson, the people, I said at the outset, already decided. They thought that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was presenting balance. And they thought that, you know, they gave it high approval rating. You have perceived a problem here which the American people obviously don’t perceive.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Well, certainly in terms of Jim Lehrer “NewsHour,” there is no balance problem. That is great journalism. Public Broadcasting has a great reputation in these areas. We had a period of time two years ago where I think we were all asleep at the switch in terms of the Moyers programming. I never wanted to take the Moyers program off the hour.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: What do you mean by “asleep at the switch” with the Moyers program? I’d like you to tell me a little bit more.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Because we should have been aware that on Friday evening, if you presented liberal advocacy journalism for an hour, you really should present conservative advocacy journalism for an hour just for a matter of balance. The law requires balance.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: And this was your conclusion based on Mr. Mann’s investigation?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: This was my conclusion when I found that there was a dispute over my view of this program and the general review of this program. I, quite frankly, have run into next to no serious people who regarded the Moyers program as anything other than good liberal advocacy programming.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Will you accept his invitation to take an hour, go on the air on Public Television and to debate that issue?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Well, absolutely. But, you know —

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Oh, you will accept it?

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Absolutely. But, you know, Senator Durbin, Bill Moyers and I both have concluded that this debate is not good for Public Television.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: No, it isn’t.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: And, you know, there were things that Moyers said in that speech about me that were most inaccurate and unfair. It saddened me to see that. I could have come back in kind. I chose not to. We’re for Public Broadcasting. We’re for no bias in Public Broadcasting. We don’t want bias on the right, and we don’t want bias on the left.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Tomlinson, head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He is Chair of CPB, being questioned by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois at Monday’s appropriations subcommittee hearing.

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