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The Putsch at Public Broadcasting | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

The Putsch at Public Broadcasting

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Editor's Note: After The Nation went to press, Fox News announced that the Journal Editorial Report would be moving from PBS to the Fox News Channel.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

Fifteen months ago I wrote in this space, "Given the right's domination of television talk shows and its already strong representation on public broadcasting, the only imaginable explanation for the decision to put PBS resources in the hands of well-financed, well-distributed, unabashedly partisan and journalistically challenged ideologues can be naked political pressure." I had no idea at the time just how powerful that pressure was and how high in the echelons of the Bush Administration it went.

An investigation by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's inspector general, Kenneth Konz, found that its former chair, Kenneth Tomlinson, consistently violated its statutory provisions and the Director's Code of Ethics. Thanks to Konz, we now know that Tomlinson was receiving advice and possibly instructions directly from the top--(acting President) Karl Rove. It's hard to believe America's second most influential politician (just behind Dick Cheney), while being investigated for possibly illegally leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame, cared enough about PBS's prime-time programming to plot the overthrow of Bill Moyers. But the e-mail traffic appears to bear it out. The only sensible explanation is the meta one. Bush II brooks no dissent from anyone anywhere in government or the media, whether it comes from CIA agents' husbands, EPA scientists, Medicare economists or public television broadcasters (including, it turns out, cartoon rabbits).

Unfortunately for Rove & Co., Tomlinson's performance puts one in mind of the Michael Brown School of Management. He forced out the professionals and replaced them with Republican fundraisers and right-wing hacks. CPB's new chair, Cheryl Halpern, together with her husband, as Mother Jones reports, contributed a total of $81,800 to Bush and other Republicans; she lists her occupation variously as attorney, real estate developer, self-employed and housewife. Vice chair Gay Hart Gaines, an interior decorator, was formerly chair of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC. President Patricia de Stacy Harrison is a former RNC co-chair. In addition, Tomlinson created slush funds to hire mysterious lobbyists, consultants and media monitors and to create phony data with which to argue his case before Congress. He doled out millions to conservatives like the now canceled Tucker Carlson and the Wall Street Journal editorial page editors to get their programs on the air, and sought to undermine the funding of those who resisted.

All of this is evident from a reading of Konz's report. We can also see from e-mail traffic between Tomlinson and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot--helpfully released by Gigot--that Tomlinson bragged to Gigot, regarding past PBS president Pat Mitchell, that he would "hold up her money if she doesn't deliver" on the Journal's pundit chat show. Indeed, he fired off e-mails to CPB staff members telling them to threaten a cutoff unless PBS adopted his concept of ideological "balance." Mitchell complied, as the only means of protecting Moyers's program.

At one point in the correspondence, yours truly makes a cameo appearance with journalist Morton Mintz--in my case because of concern that my column cited above might muck up their plans. For protection, Gigot suggests Tomlinson empower someone to "collect string on the two and show how left they really are." Tomlinson asks Gigot for help "to set some backfires" and promises "to get someone interested in laughing at these clowns."

This might have been the origins of Tomlinson's decision to hire "Fred Mann" to monitor Moyers's program, along with the NPR shows hosted by Diane Rehm and Tavis Smiley. I use quotation marks because nobody has been able to verify the existence of the alleged Mr. Mann. All we know about him is that he is said to be the product of M. Stanton Evans's right-wing ideology factory, misleadingly named the National Journalism Center, and is listed as having been paid more than $14,000 to do incompetently what could easily have been done for nothing by any half-witted high school student with a broadband connection. For the purposes of the Mann/Tomlinson System of Ideological Identification, reporters like the Washington Post's Dana Priest, Robin Wright and Walter Pincus qualify as "liberals," as do, I kid you not, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel and former right-wing Georgia Congressman and impeachment impresario Bob Barr.

The same overwrought notion of ideological "balance" characterizes Tomlinson's choice for the new position of CPB ombudsman. (NPR already had its own ombudsman and PBS just got one, making four bias watchdogs in all.) Of the two hired by Tomlinson, William Schulz is the more typical Bush II personality: a former Tomlinson crony and ex-writer for the McCarthyite radio broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr. The second, Ken Bode, is the alleged "liberal," offering "balance." Bode is a respected journalist and educator, but he is no liberal. He endorsed former Bush budget director Mitch Daniels in the Indiana governor's race and is an adjunct fellow at the right-wing Hudson Institute.

With the professionals increasingly forced out at the top and replaced by right-wing Republican fundraisers with little if any relevant experience, the right-wing takeover of CPB is now plain for all to see. Early results include a multimillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy to the billion-dollar Dow Jones corporation to reproduce Journal Editorial Report, a show almost identical to the one canceled years ago by CNBC. (Unlike Bill Moyers on NOW, the Journal editors do not bother with actual reporting, or contrary views.) But much remains unanswered. Why did Tomlinson go to so much trouble to funnel money in secret to the "Mann," in Indiana? Is there more, as yet unreleased, in the report? What, ultimately, was its intended purpose--another McCarthy-style blacklist or just a Nixonian "enemies list"? Did Gigot make any unpublished promises about lending the Journal edit pages to these purposes? And why did Tomlinson feel compelled to lie to Senator Byron Dorgan when questioned about the secret Mann deal, falsely insisting that another CPB executive had "approved and signed" the Mann contract when in fact he had signed it himself? And finally, what else are they hiding?

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