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Tomlinson: Betraying the Public Trust?

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) Chairman Ken Tomlinson broke laws and violated ethics policies during his partisan-driven tenure, CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz said last week.

In an internal investigation requested by several legislators, Konz concluded that Tomlinson “violated statutory provisions” and the board's code of ethics by dealing directly with programmers during negotiations over the creation of public-affairs program The Journal Editorial Report. Konz also said Tomlinson used “political tests” to recruit President/CEO Patricia Harrison, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The Public Broadcasting Act prevents CPB from influencing programming decisions and attempts to insulate it from politics. The law permits hiring consultants and requires CPB to try to achieve balance in controversial programming.

Firestorm of Criticism

Therefore, the Konz report concluded, hiring an outside consultant to gauge objectivity and balance in noncommercial programming, like Bill Moyers' Now, was not out of bounds. Still, it said, Tomlinson should have informed the board and should not have signed the contract without approval.

Tomlinson prompted a firestorm of criticism when he began pushing for more conservative programming to balance the liberal bias he saw in some noncommercial shows, particularly Moyers' program.

In response to the report, the CPB board promised to improve oversight of consultants and make its workings more transparent. Legislators, echoing the “laws were broken” refrain, called for hearings to make sure that happens, and activist groups like Free Press and Citizens for Digital Democracy called for the resignation of Harrison and the entire board.

The report said the White House had not been cooperative in the investigation. The administration responded that, “as a matter of policy, the White House does not make staff available to talk with Offices of the Inspector General.”

Konz' investigation, the report said, “identified e-mails between [Tomlinson] and staff in the Executive Office of the President that, while cryptic in nature, their timing and subject matter gives the appearance that the former chairman was strongly motivated by political considerations in filling the president/CEO position.” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who had called for the report, said last week he wants the White House to reveal the source of the cryptic memos.

Tomlinson fired back at Konz, saying plenty of people at CPB knew what he was doing. “Any suggestion by Mr. Konz that I violated my fiduciary duties, the Director's Code of Ethics or relevant statutory provisions is malicious and irresponsible,” he said. “All of my actions were open, lawful, and were taken after consulting and receiving advice from CPB's general counsel, its president or the CPB board of directors. Even the most cursory and objective examination of the evidence would have demonstrated this.”

“Voices of America”

Tomlinson also defended his efforts to get the Wall Street Journal show on the air. “Public broadcasting should not be the domain of any particular ideology or party,” he said in a statement. “The voices of America should be heard on public television—across the political spectrum,” he added. “Unfortunately, the inspector general's preconceived and unjustified findings will only help to maintain the status quo, and other reformers will be discouraged from seeking change. Regrettably, as a result, balance and objectivity will not come soon to elements of public broadcasting.”

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.