If nothing else seemed clear amid last week’s avalanche of public-broadcasting activity on Capitol Hill, this did: Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has become a polarizing force at a time when CPB needs a uniter, not a divider.
Tomlinson and the Republican Party loyalist he installed as president are the wrong team to head an organization that was meant to be “carefully guarded from government or from party control,” according to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who helped create it.
That said, we believe there is validity in Tomlinson’s argument that public TV and radio should speak more to the vast public between the coasts. There are also members of public broadcastings’ own camp who privately wondered whether the Postcards From Buster TV series that has drawn Bush administration criticism was what the Department of Education had bargained for when it approved a grant to PBS. The kids series was 99% non-controversial, but the episode featuring lesbian parents was a red flag in front of the bull elephants running free in D.C.
But what merit there is in Tomlinson’s pitch for a broader-based service has been lost in Republicans’ partisan and sometimes petty attack, which he has abetted rather than countered. Tomlinson is all thorn and no olive branch.
When he uses terms like “fair and balanced” in talking about what PBS should be, it is understandably seen as code guaranteed to evoke charges of the “Foxification” of PBS and raise alarm bells with liberals and moderates, as well as with viewers who just don’t care about a political agenda at all. Tomlinson, it turns out, also hired the equivalent of a media private eye to tally “anti-Bush” and “anti-DeLay” stories on Bill Moyers’ Now.
Then there was the naming of a pair of ombudsmen. Lots of journalistic organizations have them, so the move should not have been immediately controversial. But given Tomlinson’s view that noncommercial broadcasting suffers from a liberal bias that needs repairing, the decision to add two ombudsmen to review its programming simply added fuel to the fire.
Backing off the election of his choice of former Republican National Committee Co-Chair Patricia Harrison to head CPB would have been an opportunity to recognize the divisiveness of that choice. But Tomlinson did not, and the fire was fanned higher last week, even as CPB should have been celebrating the partial victory of the House’s restoration of $100 million in funding cuts.
Tomlinson has left Moyers (retired), CPB President Kathleen Cox (resigned) and arguably PBS President Pat Mitchell (not re-upping) in his wake and has given no indication of changing course.
It hasn’t helped that the video-news-release issue and the Armstrong Williams’ pay-for-play revelations involving the Bush administration reinforce the image of an administration and party trying to manipulate the media.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is supposed to be the nonpolitical disburser of federal funds to local stations. Under Tomlinson, it has become a lightning rod for accusations of political manipulation and control. Some Democrats, smelling blood in the water, may be taking pot shots, but Tomlinson handed them the guns and the ammunition.
It isn’t clear how all the contentious issues on funding, executives and program direction will shake out in the weeks to come. But whatever happens, the best way for Tomlinson to help CPB is to step down.