The Magazine

Clearing the Airwaves

From the June 13, 2005 issue: Kenneth Tomlinson's attempt to save public broadcasting.

Jun 13, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 37 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, FOR THE EDITORS
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EXTRAVAGANCE OF LANGUAGE, SWELLING sometimes to full-throated verbal hysteria, is a defining quality of today's politics. Even so, we confess to being surprised at the cascades of abuse that have recently fallen about the ears of Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Tomlinson is a bit taken aback too, apparently--though so far he shows no signs of withering under the assault. Good for him.

President Clinton appointed Tomlinson to the CPB board in 2000, and President Bush lifted him to the chairmanship three years later. During his time on the board, which oversees and underwrites public television and radio, he's taken an interest in the issue of "objectivity and balance." He's supposed to--it's right there in Section 19 of the Public Telecommunications Act: "The Board of Directors of the Corporation shall . . . review, on a regular basis, national public broadcasting programming for quality, diversity, creativity, excellence, innovation, objectivity, and balance." This provision of the act, which was passed in 1992 by a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House of Representatives, is an elementary exercise in bureaucratic hygiene. Any government agency that touches on controversial subjects, as public broadcasting inevitably will, should cast a wide net, ideologically, if it is to count on the continued good will of the taxpayers and the lawmakers who allocate their money to pay for it.

So far, so normal, you might think. "How," Tomlinson asks, "could any segment of the American people be opposed to commonsense balance?"

Oh, but people do object, lots of them, and in the overwrought terms typical of today's polemicists. A writer for the liberal magazine American Prospect called Tomlinson a "commissar of political correctness" bent on "Soviet-style partisan patronage, cronyism, and abuse." "The conservative attack on independent journalism has begun to spread," said a columnist for the Cox newspaper chain. Writing in the Boston Globe, a host of an NPR talk show also saw shadows of "Soviet-era Moscow" in Tomlinson's quest for balanced programming. The St. Petersburg Times editorialized against an "ideology-driven attempt to demonize and regulate one of the nation's most trusted news sources." The editorialists at the New York Times accused Tomlinson, who oversees a government program funded through the political process by 535 politicians, of "politicizing" his agency. Besides, the Times said, "there was a time when a passionate conservative might have looked at PBS programming and called it too liberal. But those days seem long past." Noted.

The Times's editorial writers were clumsily trying to make a point that was far more colorfully made a week later by Bill Moyers, the public television star, in a remarkable speech to a gathering of leftist journalists called the National Conference on Media Reform. "We're seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable." The storyteller Moyers was referring to, the fearless little fellow sticking it to all those princes and priests, was himself. On the other side, trying to censor him, were "people obsessed with control, using the government to threaten and intimidate . . . the people who are hollowing out middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class in a war to make sure Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq's oil, . . . the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent . . . " And especially the people who think Bill Moyers is biased.

With all the hysteria swirling about, it is anti-climactic to list what precisely Tomlinson has done to monitor and ensure balance on the government-funded airwaves. Not a lot, as it turns out. In 2003, Tomlinson heard several complaints--some of them made by senators in a hearing of the Senate commerce committee--about Moyers's show Now with Bill Moyers. So he hired an outside consultant to assess the ideological range of guests on the show, in accordance with Section 19. Then he decided public broadcasting could use a pair of ombudsmen, so he hired a former White House official to draw up their job descriptions and guidelines. Then he hired the ombudsmen: William Schulz, formerly of Reader's Digest, and Ken Bode, formerly of NBC News. Their task, in the tradition of ombudsmen everywhere, will be to write reports that almost nobody will pay attention to. And last, Tomlinson encouraged the creation of two programs showcasing politically conservative hosts, The Journal Editorial Report and Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered, to balance out the leftward tilt of shows like Now and Frontline.

Tomlinson may fail as a commissar, but he makes an excellent overseer for PBS and NPR. All along, he has said his goal is to protect public broadcasting--from the excesses of its own practitioners, if necessary--by resisting the leftward impulses that, unchecked, could endanger support from a politically diverse public. "It was my responsibility as CPB chairman to preserve public support for public broadcasting by doing something about the bias," he wrote recently. Rather than the mortal enemy his critics claim, Tomlinson may be public broadcasting's best friend. For in one sense he is simply doing what the manager of a bureaucratic institution is supposed to do: finding a strategy to keep his agency alive for the long-term.

In a larger sense, however, the abuse of Tomlinson points to something more ominous for public broadcasting: the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of maintaining government-funded media in a cultural landscape that is crisscrossed with political tripwires. We live in a remarkably touchy and thin-skinned time, and the controversy touched off by Tomlinson's mild reforms is as predictable as it is tedious. The statutory mandates for "balance and objectivity," not to mention for "excellence" and "quality," may be beyond enforcing in an era when the country's loudmouths, on the left and the right, refuse to agree on anything. (By the way, if PBS is so committed to "excellence," why does it still show those Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts?) But that's an argument for privatization--cutting public broadcasting loose from its government lifeline altogether. Public broadcasters should be careful what they wish for. If Ken Tomlinson fails today, more people will be arguing for privatization tomorrow.

--Andrew Ferguson, for the Editors