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Tomlinson Defends Pursuing PBS 'Balance'

CPB Board Chairman (for only a few more days) Kenneth Tomlinson told a Media Institute Lunch crowd in Washington that he had "no regrets" about trying to balance public broadcasting by adding conservative viewpoints.

That included hiring an outside consultant to gauge the bias in noncommercial programming, most notably Bill Moyers' show, Now, a move that angered many inside and outside public broadcasting and prompted the CPB inspector general's investigation.

Tomlinson said he would not comment until after the report was released—now scheduled for sometime in late October. However, he vowed that the series of circumstances that turned him into a lightning rod "will one day be understood."

"I demanded political balance in public broadcasting and there are people in this town who would like to see me pay for that sin," he said, sounding more sorry for the controversy that has ensued than defiant.

For his part, Tomlinson said he did not want to be remembered as someone who had damaged public broadcasting. Yet he added: "If I threatened the cozy atmosphere of public broadcasting over the failure to balance the liberal advocacy journalism of Bill Moyers, so be it," he said.

Tomlinson said he was only following the law, which says that CPB is "charged by statute with the responsibility of maintaining objectivity and balance in current affairs programming."

Tomlinson said that he thought that the noncom service had been "damaged a lot by that two-year Moyers period because it came to symbolize a total deficit in public broadcasting." He added that public broadcasting should instead call to Republicans: "Come inside the tent."
He said he had "little tolerance for public broadcasting's inability to achieve balance," but he also pointed out that he never advocated taking a liberal program off the air. Instead he insisted, "some would say a little too forcefully," that if a liberal program aired "you should air a conservative program by its side."
Tomlinson edited his luncheon speech slightly. Noting that New York Times reporter Steve Labaton (who broke the PBS bias story last May) was in the audience, Tomlinson remarked that he would have written the speech differently had he known "Steve" was going to be present. Then he went on to deliver it differently, removing a reference to something "especially laughable" in the story and changing "there's nothing there" to a reference to initially figuring the story would not have legs.

Tomlinson is no stranger to editing. He was an editor for Reader's Digest. Before that, he was a reporter for the magazine, covering Vietnam.

Saying he believed "aggressively" in balance, he pointed out that at the Digest, he wrote the story, "Can Oliver North Be Trusted," which may have cost North a Senate seat in Virginia. He also said he penned the expose that got Mike Barnacle booted from the Boston Globe.

While some Republicans are still pushing to cut CPB funding or to slash the service altogether, Republican Tomlinson said that educational kids programming alone justified funding the service, though he said there needed to be more focus on teaching kids to read.
Tomlinson made a pitch for bringing more conservatives into public broadcasting so that both sides could reason together, rather than continuing the current partisan "food fight." He justified the the pitch as healthier for the country and a way to convey an image to the world that public broadcasting was not divisive.

That would also help him in his other job as chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, which oversees Voice of America and other government-run international broadcast services.

CPB will elect a new chairman Monday, Sept. 26. Tomlinson says he will remain on the CPB board.