Monday, November 28, 2005

Public Broadcasting's Enemy Within

Public Broadcasting's Enemy Within
New York Times

Published: November 28, 2005

As chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson proved to be a disastrous zealot. Internal investigators found he repeatedly broke federal law and ethics rules in overreaching his authority and packing the payroll with Republican ideologues.

His actual job - to maintain a "heat shield" between public broadcasting and politics - was turned on its head. The scathing investigation concluded that Mr. Tomlinson was a beacon of partisanship, hiring G.O.P. consultants as ludicrous bias-control monitors and recruiting Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, to be the corporation's new president.

Mr. Tomlinson, who has now left the corporation, insisted he had "absolutely no contact" with White House partisans. But the inspector general's report found he did indeed consult with administration powers like Karl Rove, President Bush's political guru. He even hired someone still on the White House payroll for advice on creating a balance "ombudsman" for public broadcasting. And he was found to violate the law by promoting a $4 million deal for conservative writers from The Wall Street Journal to be featured as a "balancing program."

Mr. Tomlinson, a Reader's Digest editor appointed to the board by President Bill Clinton, threatened the independence at the heart of public broadcasting's popularity. His departure is no cure-all, however, for the board remains a haven for such political appointees as Cheryl Halpern, a Republican fund-raiser chosen by Mr. Tomlinson as the new corporation chairwoman.

The inspector general's report is a case study of how dangerous ideological cronyism is as a substitute for nonpartisan expertise. Defenders of public broadcasting now must guard against still another conservative putsch - a Congressional move to cut financing for the corporation's $400 million budget of vital aid for local stations. This time, the "balance" zealots may resort to irony by citing the very chaos wrought by Mr. Tomlinson.