The storm brewing over public broadcasting unleashed another deluge this week, in the form of a long-awaited internal report about the man at the top. The report charges former Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson with playing politics in ways that violated the letter and spirit of the law, and using his influence to put more conservatives on the air. Brooke reviews the allegations with Current reporter Karen Everhart.
BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, through which the government funnels some 400 million dollars annually to public TV and radio, released its long-awaited report on alleged wrongdoing by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson. Essentially, the five-month investigation by CPB's inspector general found that Tomlinson, who resigned two weeks ago, played politics in a way that violated both the letter and the spirit of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The IG found that he used political tests when hiring several staffers, including President Patricia Harrison, and that he flouted official CPB procedure by paying outside consultants, including a researcher to secretly monitor shows he deemed liberal. And in what many cite as the most damning allegation, Tomlinson was found to have influenced program content in an effort to put more conservatives on the air. Karen Everhart reports for Current, the weekly newspaper about public broadcasting, and she joins me now. Karen, welcome back to the show.
KAREN EVERHART: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we'll get to the issue of balance in a few minutes, but first, given the IG's investigation and your own reporting, what do we know about the role Kenneth Tomlinson played in shepherding "The Wall Street Journal Editorial Report," a conservative weekend talk show, onto public television?
KAREN EVERHART: It's clear that in December of 2003, he approached Paul Gigot, the editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and said, I am pressuring PBS to add a conservative program to balance now with Bill Moyers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did he use the word "pressure?"
KAREN EVERHART: Here's explicitly what he said. I'm quoting from an e-mail that is dated December 4th, 2003. "I'm trying to pressure Pat Mitchell to produce a real conservative counterpart to Moyers." And he's referring to the series "NOW with Bill Moyers, which used to air on PBS on Friday nights. "Would you be available for such an effort? If not, could you discuss such a program with me?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what precisely was improper in what Tomlinson did?
KAREN EVERHART: What was improper is that CPB board members are appointed by the president. And there's been a policy, a long-standing policy at CPB for board members to not become directly involved in program decisions. So by approaching Mr. Gigot himself and strategizing with him about opportunities to bring programs to PBS, he overstepped the sort of clear line that had been drawn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this week the Wall Street Journal issued a scathing condemnation of the Inspector General's report, said that it was wildly political, that PBS came to them, that it's absurd to think that PBS felt intimidated by Kenneth Tomlinson and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that this was a legitimate enterprise. Was there anything wrong in what the Wall Street Journal says?
KAREN EVERHART: Well, to their view, PBS has demonstrated that it's not open to having conservative intellectuals on its air. From the view of public broadcasters, it's really clear, especially from the exchange of e-mails between Mr. Gigot and Mr. Tomlinson, that Mr. Gigot was sort of behind Tomlinson's agenda to balance PBS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when Tomlinson took over as the chair of CPB two years ago, he cast himself as a reformer, one who was trying to protect public broadcasting from cuts from a conservative Congress, and he made accusations about a liberal bias in public broadcasting. This ticked off a lot of veterans at PBS.
KAREN EVERHART: Well, because their sort of approach to public affairs is to try to not approach it from a liberal perspective or a conservative perspective but from a journalistic perspective. And they don't want to be seen to be making editorial decisions on the basis of politics or ideology. And Tomlinson's activism and his insistence on bringing conservative commentators to the schedule really offended the sensibilities [CHUCKLES] of people who didn't appreciate the perception that was created that they were bending to political powers that be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Public Broadcasting Act could be cited by both sides of this argument to support their position because even though the act calls for the CPB to stay out of broadcasting content, it also calls for the CPB to work to ensure quality, diversity, creativity and balance. So couldn't former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson say, "Look, I was just following the part of the act that nobody's ever followed before?"
KAREN EVERHART: Well, that's exactly what he's saying. And the IG concluded that Tomlinson in some regards was within his mandate and within his authority but in this particular instance overstepped the authority of the CPB chairman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think are the long-term consequences of the IG's report?
KAREN EVERHART: It's really hard to say at this point, Brooke. Right now, the America's Public Television Stations, which is a lobbyist group on behalf of public TV, have put forward an agenda to reform the constitution of the CPB Board. And the CPB Board also acted this week to implement some changes regarding internal controls and checks and balances. Now, when it comes to programming, the IG also said that CPB needed to find a way to define what is appropriate in terms of moving to balance the schedule. And this is something that public TV has struggled with for all the time that I've been reporting on public broadcasting, over 12 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet some critics of public broadcasting say that the problem isn't balance but rather quality prime-time TV programming.
KAREN EVERHART: Oh, well, I mean, the problems of public television in particular go way beyond this whole political discussion over CPB. I mean, public TV stations are really struggling right now to figure out a way to revitalize their prime-time schedule, and even their children's schedule is really taking a lot of heat from all the commercial cable networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the availability of arts programming on cable, the availability of science programming, children's programming, it's fair to say cable is eating their lunch.
KAREN EVERHART: [LAUGHS] Yes, it is. But, I mean, you know, the thing is that PBS has really high standards of quality programs and viewers do recognize the difference between a PBS documentary and something that they find on the History Channel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen, thank you very much.
KAREN EVERHART: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen Everhart is Senior Editor at Current, the weekly newspaper about public broadcasting.