Conservatives have long complained about what they perceive as a left-wing tilt in public broadcasting. This week, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is among the critics, and is taking steps to right the leaning ship. Tomlinson tells Bob that he's not politicizing public broadcasting, but rather balancing programming to serve more Americans
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For many years, conservative Republicans have complained about a liberal tilt in public broadcasting and have attempted at various times to deal with the problem by cutting federal funds to public radio and TV. This week, the New York Times reported that the battle is being waged yet again at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The nine-member board appointed by the president is the conduit through which tax dollars flow to public radio and TV stations and to PBS itself. The chairman of the CPB board is Republican Kenneth Tomlinson. He acknowledged to the Times that he hired consultants to document a leftist tilt he perceived in the PBS program "Now with Bill Moyers," and that he helped get a correspondingly right-tilted show, the "Journal Editorial Report," on the air. The Times also reported that Tomlinson worked with White House political advisor Karl Rove to help kill a legislative effort that would have made it more difficult to politically stack the CPB board. Tomlinson told us he is not politicizing public broadcasting, but rather balancing programming to serve more Americans.
KENNETH TOMLINSON: I don't want to achieve balance by taking programs that are the favorites of good liberals off the air. I want to make sure that when you have programs that tilt left, we also have some programs that tilt right so the viewer can make up his or her own mind. A couple of years ago, the primary complaints were about the Bill Moyers show, and my proposal for that was to get other shows that, as I say, tilted right. Today, you have a 30-minute "Now" program in many markets, and you have a 30-minute Wall Street Journal program in many markets. People can pick and choose. That's balance.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken, aren't you confusing liberalism with journalism? The two have a lot in common - suspicion of authority, sympathy of the little guy, the instinct to reform and so on. Of course "Frontline" and "Now with Bill Moyers" will question the establishment, will question power - now matter who is in power - whichever party. That isn't ideological bias, Ken. It's journalism.
KENNETH TOMLINSON: I, I beg to differ. I have no quarrel at all with "Frontline." I did have a quarrel with the politics of the Moyers show. But did I want it removed? Absolutely not. The issue I - why can't you accept - let's have one program if it's tilted one way, let's make sure we have other programs tilted the other way.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I can answer that question. Isn't there a danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by trying to artificially balance it with explicitly political material? Aren't you in fact playing politics with something that was not a political matter to begin with?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: I simply disagree with you, and I think you're the one playing politics by the way you're framing the question. I am for good investigative journalism in the tradition of "Frontline" and "60 Minutes." I have no objection to politically tilted programs. Will there be times when reporting supersedes the issue of balance? Absolutely. The public understands what it is. People here in Washington understand what it is. They can see the tilt. And what I want to do is, I want people not to regard public broadcasting as the voice of one particular ideological side in this country. I want them to hear the voices of America, the diverse voices of America on the public television.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you not do opinion research and discover that on the whole the public believes that they're getting a pretty even shake from their public broadcasting?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: The opinion research reveals that the public has a very positive attitude toward public broadcasting, but that attitude should be even higher. Public television now is in financial trouble. We are trying to find ways to firm up the foundation of public broadcasting, or public broadcasting could be in jeopardy.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't it a dangerous crossing of lines of authority for CPB, which is supposed to be a funding organization for public broadcasting, to explicitly interfere in editorial decisions by public broadcasting?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: What we do is from the "bloody pulpit," as Teddy Roosevelt said. And I also made sure that, in the last two years, those discussions were inside public broadcasting, because I did not choose to bring controversy to public broadcasting over the issue of, of balance. Others did. And so when you create a New York Times story which ran on us earlier this week, you create the controversy, and on a show like this, I want to come back and discuss it. I'm not looking for political gain. My role in this is to encourage support for what we're doing in public broadcasting.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you speak to the president when you were appointed?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: I've spoken to the president in the past, but I've never spoken to anyone in the White House about these issues.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it your assertion that the CPB is not being politicized by the White House?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: Well, of course it's not being politicized by the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: According to the New York Times story that appeared recently, you worked with Karl Rove, the president's political advisor, to help change the terms by which CPB board seats would be filled.
KENNETH TOMLINSON: Let me clear up that error in the Times. Two leaders of public broadcasting came to me and suggested that Karl Rove's office would be supporting their effort to effectively pack the CPB board. I asked Karl Rove - are you all going to be supporting this? And he said no. End of involvement.
BOB GARFIELD: It's well known that Republicans in the House periodically have attempted to cut funding or entirely de-fund public broadcasting. Is there some sort of threat implicit here, that you know, either put on the right wing shows or watch out, this time we're really going to pull the plug?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: You know, in recent years, we've had very good Republican support for public broadcasting. I don't think you've heard any serious call in recent years from any point on the political spectrum to do anything to significantly reduce the funding for public broadcasting. I just think that my course of action, in conjunction with common sense, will encourage greater support for public broadcasting.
BOB GARFIELD: The Bush administration is talking about a 60 million dollar cut. Is that apolitical in nature?
KENNETH TOMLINSON: We have some budgetary work to do, but we live in very tough budgetary times. We have a lot of people going for that federal treasury, and I want there to be a consensus in this country that public broadcasting should get its share.
BOB GARFIELD: I very much appreciate your spending the time with us.
KENNETH TOMLINSON: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Kenneth Tomlinson is chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.