Book Excerpt: Trying to Turn PBS to the Right

Jun 5, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Rolling Stone contributing editor and former entertainment trade reporter Eric Boehlert’s new book, “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush,” documents what he sees as the media’s failure to challenge the Bush administration on issues such as the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame and the war in Iraq. The wrangling over the politics of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting also brought the administration’s conflicts with the press into focus. In the following excerpt from “Lapdogs,” Mr. Boehlert critiques the administration’s push to add more conservative voices to the public broadcaster. TelevisionWeek invites readers with differing viewpoints to respond by sending e-mail to letters@tvweek.com.

Just two months into his tenure as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the government-created umbrella organization that doles out tens of millions of dollars annually for public television and radio programming, Kenneth Tomlinson had an epiphany. It was a Friday night in November 2003 and Tomlinson, a round, bearded man with a honey-coated Southern drawl who breeds thoroughbred racehorses on a farm in Virginia, was watching PBS. Specifically, he was dialed into “Now With Bill Moyers,” the weekly news magazine hosted by the longtime PBS


Tomlinson, a journalist himself who spent three decades with Reader’s Digest, ultimately becoming editor-in-chief of that Republican print bastion, did not like what he was seeing on “Now” and its special presentation, “A Question of Fairness.” Examining America’s shrinking middle class and the growing disparity between rich and poor, “A Question of Fairness” focused on how the residents of small town America, such as Tamaqua, Pa., a former coal town, had been affected by new free trade agreements, corporate fraud, and regressive tax policies.

Tomlinson, who grew up just outside the tiny town of Galax, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains and knew something about small town America, considered the “Now” report to be one-sided and superficial and he decided it was his duty to take action. Right then on that Friday night, as Tomlinson later told the Washington Post, he resolved that it was time to bring “balance” to the public airwaves. He quickly sent a letter off to the head of PBS complaining “Now With Bill Moyers” “does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.”

That was the genesis of what became one of public broadcasting most bruising and deeply damaging controversies. Except that Tomlinson also told a completely different version of his “a-ha!” moment story. According to the second account, which Tomlinson recounted in an op-ed column he penned for the Washington Times as well as telling the story in-person during a C-SPAN interview, his “a-ha! ‘moment about PBS’ liberal bias did come on a Friday night and it was in November 2003, but nothing else about the story was the same. In that telling, Tomlinson missed the weekly broadcast of “Now,” but right after the program aired he received an angry phone call from an old friend who complained about the Moyers’ program and its lack of balance.

He told Tomlinson it was up to him to fix the problem and to do it for the good of public broadcasting. Or else. The old friend told Tomlinson he headed up a foundation that had recently given $300,000 to a local public broadcasting station, but that in the light of Moyers’ liberal bias the friend had ordered the foundation payments not be renewed unless Moyers’ brand of liberalism was reined in.

Tomlinson, hired by Congress to both promote public broadcasting and to protect it from any outside political efforts to pressure broadcasters politically, could have told his old friend that while he appreciated his comments regarding programming concerns, heavy-handed threats of withholding funds in exchange for a crackdown on alleged media bias was not how public broadcasting operated in America, and that while it’s important that all points of view be expressed on the taxpayer-funded networks, it’s equally important that programmers not fear funding cuts on the basis of content. The CPB chief could have told his old friend that, but he did not. “On reflection,” Tomlinson wrote in the Washington Times, “I decided he was right.” So began Tomlinson’s clumsy, ill-advised campaign to stomp out liberal bias at public television.

Beginning in 2003 and extending over the next two years, Tomlinson, sometimes conferring with top White House aides including Karl Rove, spent millions of taxpayer dollars getting new conservative-friendly programs on the air, installed the former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee as its president, tapped a Bush ally as head of CPB programming, created an ombudsman’s office to police biased reporters, hired consultants to secretly document broadcasting bias, and demanded new journalism guidelines be implemented. All of that because out of the hundreds of hours of public broadcasting programming aired each week one program, “Now,” was too liberal. And for that Tomlinson was willing to risk attacking, undermining, and perhaps even crippling, all of public broadcasting.

Conservative Talking Points

The importance of the Tomlinson’s smear campaign against public broadcasting was not in how the mainstream media (MSM) covered the controversy; they, and particularly the major dailies, did a relatively good job framing the issue and chronicling Tomlinson’s heavy-handed crusade and his many inconsistencies. The significance of the showdown, and how it related to the MSM’s timid coverage of the Bush administration, was that it presented an unblemished look at how conservatives moved hard to throttle the press, to put reporters on notice, and to discourage them from asking too many hard questions. Tomlinson’s meltdown over PBS also highlighted how rampantly dishonest the conservative debate over liberal bias often is and how it usually has little if anything to do with journalism, but everything to do with partisan politics.

Tomlinson only had authority over public broadcasting, but his complaints about “liberal advocacy journalism,” and his use of the code words such as “balance” in describing PBS’s alleged liberal tilt, mirrored the conservative talking points about the mainstream media as a whole, a debate the Bush White House did everything to encourage. The debate Tomlinson was able to spark, and the awkward position he placed public broadcasters who knew Tomlinson’s conservative allies in Congress were always searching for a way to discredit-and de-fund-PBS and NPR, was the same bind conservatives wanted to place all journalists: to make them fear the consequences of their work.

“It’s designed to get people’s attention and warn them not to do programming that will be questioned,” said David Fanning, executive producer of “Frontline,” PBS’s award-winning investigative series. “We ask hard questions to people in power. That’s anathema to some people in Washington these days.”

The irony of Tomlinson’s crusade for balance and objectivity was that as a journalist himself his background consisted of working mostly at partisan, one-sided “advocacy” journalism outlets, as he would call them. Tomlinson’s reference point for fair and balanced reporting was Fox News, which is why he once suggested to the CPB board that Fox News anchor Brit Hume be invited to give pointers to public broadcasting officials about how to create balanced news programming. (Concluding a softball interview on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Tomlinson once gushed, “We love your show.”)

Tomlinson may have told reporters that, “I’ve always been dedicated to balance,” but it had been nearly 40 years since he worked inside a down-the-middle news organization: the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which he left in the 1968. Tomlinson then began a nearly three-decade affiliation with Reader’s Digest, which conservative National Review magazine once described as “the quintessential magazine of ‘red-state’ America.” Tomlinson also worked
as an intern for the late, red-baiting broadcaster, Fulton Lewis Jr., according to a report in the conservative online news site, NewsMax.com.

Tomlinson’s Reader’s Digest career ended with his retirement in 1996 when he left the magazine to work on the Republican presidential campaign of his friend Steve Forbes. In 2002, Bush appointed Tomlinson chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other federally funded outlets that broadcast government-sponsored news and information around the world. (Tomlinson served simultaneously as chairman of the CPB and BBG.) Under Tomlinson’s supervision, VOA staffers during the Bush administration repeatedly charged that newscasts were skewed in order to make them overtly sympathetic to the White House, that reporters were told to emphasize the “good news” stories in Iraq while turning away from car bombs and terrorist attacks, and were chastised for quoting Democratic members of Congress who were critical of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism. (VOA’s reporting is supposed to be neutral and professional.) “With management reportedly censoring critical stories,” the American Prospect reported in 2004, “Morale at the VOA has plummeted.”

Similarly, Tomlinson’s ascension to chairman of the CPB brought with it a distinct new atmosphere inside that agency. Christy Carpenter, a former Democrat-appointed member of the CPB board, recalled that with Tomlinson’s 2003 arrival, “the tone of the discussion became increasingly partisan. There was an agenda being pushed to bring in more conservative voices. I have no objection if conservative voices are in the mix. But I had the impression that more was being pursued than just ‘balance.'”

Placed in the ‘Lefty Column’

In retrospect, Tomlinson’s objection to Moyers’ work at PBS was not surprising. Movement conservatives had for years been targeting the award-winning journalist with a proud populist streak who had won more than 30 Emmy Awards over his three-decade career as a television journalist. Moyers’ “Now” proved tenacious during the first Bush administration, standing out from the timid MSM pack with its consistent coverage of the unfolding landscape of media consolidation (an issue the consolidating television industry itself refused to touch), the middle class anxiety created by big business outsourcing and, as well as an unforgiving critic of the war with Iraq, both for being ill-conceived and poorly executed.

Moyers’ reporting and commentary, which often lobbed grenades at the right-wing press for being nothing more than GOP propagandists, drove some partisans to distraction. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly became so obsessed with Moyers that his name was mentioned on more than 50 “O’Reilly Factor” broadcasts between 2003 and 2005. Not surprisingly, O’Reilly’s obsession wasn’t always rational. Opening his Jan. 5, 2005, telecast, O’Reilly insisted, “I have nothing against Moyers” and then minutes later labeled Moyers a “totalitarian.”

Tomlinson’s crusade eventually imploded in rather spectacular fashion. Tomlinson himself became the target of the CPB’s inspector general’s investigation, which concluded Tomlinson broke public broadcasting guidelines, abused CPB ethics, and instituted a “political test” for key hires. (Tomlinson was forced to step down from his CPB post in late 2005.) Specifically, the inspector general chided Tomlinson for hiring consultants without informing the CPB Board first. One of the consultants Tomlinson hired behind the board’s back was Fred Mann, a 20-year veteran of the National Journalism Center, which was founded by the American Conservative Union to train young conservatives to break through the media’s liberal bias. Ann Coulter is a proud alumna of the Center. Mann was hired to chronicle the liberal bias of “Now” as well as other NPR shows. Mann did so by documenting each guests’ political leanings.

Using some novel methods of tabulation, he listed guests as “anti-Bush,” “anti-business,” and “anti-Tom DeLay.” Mann also found liberal bias in some unlikely places as his report slotted each of the following guests under the “liberal” category; former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who served as a driving force in the Clinton impeachment hearings, conservative Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel, and right-wing radio host Roger Hedgecock. Each was placed in the lefty column because they expressed opinions on “Now” that differed from official Bush administration policy. (Hedgecock was “liberal” for suggesting military personnel were underpaid.)

Tomlinson defended Mann’s misleading, taxpayer-funded report, which contained spelling errors and was faxed in from a Hallmark store in Indianapolis. In fact, he championed the widely ridiculed report as “irrefutable documentation” of “Now’s” bias. Tomlinson commissioned the 2004 study from Mann despite the fact the CPB itself paid for polls in both 2002 and 2003 designed specifically to measure whether Americans thought public broadcasting suffered from a liberal bias. Overwhelmingly, they did not. The reason Tomlinson needed a report dissecting “Now” conducted by a conservative media activist like Mann was the CPB chairman had virtually no instances of unfairness-of liberal bias-to cite in order to back up his crusade.

In the absence of actual infractions by PBS reporters and producers, Tomlinson insisted he was concerned by the mere perception of a bias. … In response to a New York Times article documenting the internal tension he had set off, Tomlinson released a statement that read, in part, “Eliminating the perception of political bias … is important to maintain continued public support for public broadcasting.”

But the question remained, a perception of political bias by whom-Republican politicians and conservative activists, or PBS viewers and everyday Americans? If most U.S. taxpayers didn’t think the programming was biased-and two national polls showed they did not-then what was the point of Tomlinson’s campaign?

Tomlinson tipped his hand in the Nov. 17, 2003, issue of Current magazine, which reports on public broadcasting. In an interview he argued, “If a significant number of conservatives are saying public TV is not for them, we need to change that.” [Emphasis added.] But what if a “significant number” of environmentalists, or libertarians or Latinos or Asians were saying public TV was not for them, would the CPB have taken drastic action to remedy that perception? And what constituted a “significant number”? According to CPB polling done in 2003, 12 percent of Americans thought PBS had a conservative bias. Why didn’t Tomlinson address that concern as well? In truth, the CPB’s crusade flipped on its head the organization’s mandate, which was to act as public broadcasting’s “heat shield,” insulating programmers from outside political pressure. By demanding programming changes to meet its political concerns, Tomlinson’s CPB became a heat conductor.

A longtime ideologue who said he was “strongly committed to George Bush,” Tomlinson was determined to ferret out any bias in order to save public broadcasting from its liberal self. Or so Tomlinson claimed. But in a moment of candor during an interview with the conservative Washington Times, Tomlinson expressed mild bewilderment as to why Americans backed public broadcasting. “For whatever reason, the American people seem to support it,” he said, telegraphing his own doubts about the whole endeavor. “I’m not for government getting into areas that are served by others. I do think public broadcasting is a fact of life in this country. You’re not going to de-fund it.” (Tomlinson’s lack of enthusiasm was matched perhaps only by the interim CPB president he appointed in 2005, Kenneth Ferree, who confided to The New York Times that he didn’t watch much public television and he listened to even less public radio.)

Dodging Political Bullets

Many conservative activists on the far right wanted to do just that; de-fund public broadcasting and
watch its independent-minded programming wither away. As Tomlinson himself noted, “A lot of my friends are against [any] taxpayer support” for PBS. Publicly, he insisted his crusade against liberal bias at PBS was supposed to help it win more funding in Congress. Not surprisingly though, Tomlinson’s tactics produced the opposite result-helping Republican make small gains in their quest to turn off PBS’s spigot on Capitol Hill.

Ever since America’s public television system was established through the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, it has had to dodge political bullets, nearly always fired by Republicans. Despite the consistent and high-profile presence on PBS over the years of conservatives such as William F. Buckley (who hosted 1,429 episodes of his public policy program “Firing Line”), John McLaughlin, Ben Wattenberg, William Bennett, Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, Tony Brown and Morton Kondracke, Republicans have insisted for decades that the network suffered from a liberal bias. During the early 1970s, when it was dubbed an “Eastern elite” bias, the Republican-controlled CPB Board refused to fund news, news analysis, and political commentary programming. This, after the Nixon administration in 1972 vetoed PBS’s budget.

In an April 27, 1972, memo written to Nixon by aide Clay Whitehead, head of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, he noted one of the administration’s “long-term” goals regarding PBS was “the elimination of the use of Federal funds for public affairs programming.” Addressing attempts to fix PBS’s “anti-administration bias,” Whitehead pointed out to Nixon, “Our only short-run lever here is the spotlight of public attention on the widely acknowledged liberal bias of most public television commentators, and we will assure that spotlight is kept on them for the rest of this year.” The ploy was reminiscent of Tomlinson’s 2005 strategy of constantly, and very publicly, raising doubts about the role of Moyers’ “Now” and its “liberal advocacy journalism.” During the Reagan era, Richard Brookhiser, then a CPB board member and a senior editor at the conservative National Review, proposed spending $180,000 for a two-year “content analysis” of PBS’s nonfiction programming in order to detect alleged left-wing bias. (The proposal was ultimately rejected by the full CPB Board.)

Amidst the Republican revolution of the 1990s the attack was full frontal, with House Speaker Newt Gingrich declaring a war on “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird and deriding PBS as “this little sandbox for the rich.” He proposed to “zero-out” its federal subsidies, dismissing the network’s supporters as “a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people so they get to spend the money.” The conservative offensive once again put PBS on notice, but politically it was a failure for Republicans who simply adjusted their sights. As Ken Auletta noted in the New Yorker in 2004, “The American right has stopped trying to get rid of PBS. Now it wants a larger voice in shaping the institution.” As the magazine noted, “This year, however, the anticipated attack from the right never came. When three public-broadcasting leaders-[PBS President] Pat Mitchell; Kevin Klose, the head of NPR; and Robert Coonrod, the president of the CPB-appeared jointly before a House subcommittee in February, no Republican members mentioned “liberal bias.”

In fact, throughout the first Bush term, relations between PBS and Republicans were surprisingly cordial. First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian, spoke warmly about PBS’s children’s programming and embraced the Ready to Learn initiative, an effort to help prepare kids for school. And against the backdrop of Congressional hearings on indecency in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction as well as bipartisan opposition to further media consolidation, PBS was able to stake out a unique, and largely welcomed, territory in the eyes of Congress as a refuge on what politicians saw as the increasingly obscene television landscape. PBS officials also worked hard to ingratiate themselves with Republicans, lining up Republican lobbyists to work the Hill on their behalf. In 2003 Gingrich was tapped PBS keynote speaker when PBS station managers made their annual pilgrimage to Washington to schmooze with politicians and ask for funding. (Gingrich received a standing ovation from the public broadcasting audience.) PBS president Mitchell even met with Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, to discuss a possible public television series based on her children’s books.

Poisoned Relationship

Then in 2005, Tomlinson, the man charged with insuring warm relations between the public broadcasting and members of Congress, stepped into the spotlight and poisoned the relationship. Tipping logic on its head, Tomlinson insisted he needed to fix PBS’s leftward tilt in order to save it from Congressional budget cuts, even though no major cuts had proposed in years. (Congress contributes approximately 15 percent of public broadcasting’s $2 billion annual budget.) Those attempted deep cuts only surfaced after Tomlinson led his bias charge. Worse, the cuts seemed to take Tomlinson, public broadcasting’s top steward, by complete surprise.

Taping an NPR interview that aired on June 4, 2005, Tomlinson said, “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.”

Just five days later though, a Republican-controlled House subcommittee voted to drastically reduce the federal government’s financial support for public broadcasting. As news of the June 9th Draconian measure spread through Washington, D.C., senior officials at the CPB urged Tomlinson to immediately release a statement condemning the Republican subcommittee vote. He balked, waiting until late in the date to issue a statement that said he was merely “concerned” about the Congressional proposal.

In the end, the full Congress, by a vote of 284 to 140, agreed to restore the deep cuts to public broadcasting, which accurately reflected the wishes of most Americans; CPB’s own polling showed that just 10 percent of Americans thought the federal government was spending “too much” on public broadcasting. A separate 2005 Roper poll found that Americans believed PBS provided the second best use of tax dollars; only military defense was a better use of tax dollars.

Mr. Boehlert later dissects the differences between the perceptions of Tomlinson and the public when it came to public broadcasting.

Tomlinson’s polling woes began when the results from the first survey came back. It was conducted in November 2002, and undertaken specifically to measure the level of bias at PBS. “Tomlinson commissioned two polls. The first results were too good, and he didn’t believe them,” said one knowledgeable public broadcasting source. “After the Iraq war, the board commissioned another round of polling, and they thought they’d get worse results.” But the board did not. The results from that survey, conducted during July 2003, were essentially unchanged from 2002. Asked specifically about PBS’s Iraq war coverage, a miniscule 7 percent of respondents thought it was “slanted.” “They couldn’t use any of it” to bolster any claims of bias, said the source.

Consequently, portions of the polling data were quietly attached to a Congressional report, as well as posted on the CPB Web site. It was not until July 2005 that all the polling data was finally published online that it become clear how energetically Tomlinson had been willing to ignore facts, shade the truth, and obfuscate. Because in this case, the numbers really did tell the whole story:

  • Just 9 percent of Americans thought PBS’s war coverage was anti-administration. (Five percent said it was pro-administration.)

  • Just 9 percent said NPR’s war coverage was anti-administration. (Four percent said it was pro-administration.)

  • Just 3 percent thought PBS’s Iraq coverage of the war w
    as anti-war.

  • Just 4 percent thought NPR’s Iraq coverage of the war was anti-war.

  • Just 1 percent thought PBS’s Iraq war coverage was “anti-U.S.” (Two percent thought it was “pro-U.S.”)

  • Just 1 percent though NPR’s war coverage was “anti-U.S.” (Two percent thought it was “pro-U.S.”)

    Overall, 24 percent of American adults said PBS had a liberal bias. (Twelve percent thought it had a conservative bias.) What’s telling is that as the pollster noted in their report, “58% of the total population identifies itself as conservative, while 33% identify itself as liberal.” That meant despite Tomlinson’s claims to the contrary, even less than half of American conservatives thought public broadcasting leaned left.

    %A9;2006 by Eric Boehlert. Reprinted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.