“I frankly feel at PBS headquarters there is a tone deafness to issues of tone and balance,” Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said in May. Since he was appointed to his position by President Bush, he has set about to change the “tone” and rectify the “balance.” For example, he helped secure $4 million to fund Wall Street Journal Report, a round-table discussion featuring the newspaper’s right-wing editorial board; no liberals or Democrats need apply. Next he collaborated with Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, to kill a legislative proposal that would have required appointments with local broadcasting experience to the CPB board. Last year, to justify his campaign for balance, Tomlinson commissioned a secret study to prove that certain programs aired on PBS radio and television are contaminated with liberal bias.
To carry out this delicate task, Tomlinson selected Fred Mann, a conservative activist with no credentials as an expert on journalism, broadcasting or media issues, who was obscure even within right-wing circles. Mann was paid $14,700 in taxpayer money to monitor a sampling of PBS shows and file a report to Tomlinson on the political partisanship of their content. Tomlinson seems to have planned for Mann’s report to become a seminal conservative document. Republicans would wave it during House appropriations committee hearings as they argued for defunding PBS and realigning its programming. Right-wing talk jocks would blare talking points based on Mann’s disturbing findings, which would at last provide definitive proof of a liberal media tilt. Meanwhile, insidious liberal activists boring from within public broadcasting studios would cower in humiliation from the exposure.
While Mann diligently went about his work listening to the radio and watching TV, monitoring episodes of PBS’s NOW With Bill Moyers, The Diane Rehm Show and The Tavis Smiley Show, Tomlinson concealed his activities from CPB’s board. When Mann filed his detailed report, Tomlinson hid it from the CPB board. Only an internal investigation by CPB’s inspector general in mid May revealed the existence of the Mann report. And only when journalists at NPR managed to secure a copy were its contents reported. Reading the study, it is clear why Tomlinson tried to keep it a state secret.
The Mann report reads as if dictated by Cookie Monster while chewing on a mouthful of lead paint chips. Names of famous political figures and celebrities are chronically misspelled. PBS guests are categorized by labels–“anti-DeLay,” “neutral,” “x”–for often bewildering reasons. Mann appears to have spent endless hours monitoring programs with no political content, gathering such insights as that Ray Charles was blind.
Mann begins each of his PBS program summaries with a chart showing guests’ ideological leanings. An “L” denotes guests he judges to be liberal; “C” beside conservatives; “N” beside those who are neutral. Among those Mann designated as conservative is the ex-rapper and actor Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, best known for his role as a well-endowed porn star in the film Boogie Nights. While Wahlberg used his June 2, 2004, appearance on The Tavis Smiley Show to promote juvenile justice programs–a liberal hallmark–he also said in passing, according to Mann, that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ “was a good thing.” Another Tavis Smiley guest, Everlast, the rock-rapper who once fronted the Irish-American rap trio House of Pain, was dubbed a “C” for his opinion that some rap music is “sending a bad message to youth.” And Henry Rollins, the former singer for the legendary hardcore-punk band Black Flag, was labeled conservative for stating, in Mann’s words, that “people who have problems with the war should support the troops.” Apparently, feeling sympathy for American servicemen and women is strictly “C.”
Mann’s liberals are an equally curious bunch. Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, garnered his “L” after speaking glowingly of Ronald Reagan in a discussion with Tavis Smiley. Hagel is, of course, that comsymp who earned a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition last year. Another Rehm guest, Washington Post reporter Robin Wright, earned her “L” by articulating an analytical point Mann apparently had not heard expressed before. “Ms. Wright’s viewpoint was that U.S. intelligence was geared to fight the Cold War and did not adapt to the new threat of terrorism,” Mann writes, describing why he put the “L” word beside her name. For investigating three of Tom DeLay’s associates for illegal fundraising in Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who was interviewed on NOW, was dubbed “anti-DeLay.” Dr. Arthur Bodette was slapped with an “L” after discussing on Diane Rehm’s show “the unlimited possibilities of new advances in DNA chips to screen for birth defects, cystic fibrosis, and mental retardation.”
Another unintentionally hilarious aspect of the Mann report is its sloppy typos. Apparently Tomlinson’s budget didn’t include a proofreader. Former Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr appears as “Ken Staff,” former Assistant Secretary of Defense Dov Zakheim as “Doug Zukheim” and former Congressman Newt Gingrich as “Next Gingrich.”
There are also curious asides and digressions. In a description of the March 29, 2004, episode of NOW, Mann notes that 9/11 widow Kristin Breitweiser filled in for Bill Moyers as host. What did he make of this? He doesn’t say. In his summary of former CIA operative Robert Baer’s interview with Diane Rehm, Mann writes, “Mr. Baer’s viewpoint was that [Ahmad] Chalabi leaked secret classified information to Iran regarding U.S. cracking Iran’s codes. As to how Chalabi new [sic] this information, Baer speculated, it was probably a drunken operative.” Reporting on Gen. Anthony Zinni’s appearance on Rehm’s show, Mann observes, “His viewpoint was that…Saddam was not a treat [sic].” Yes, and Nixon was not a cook.
Besides scrutinizing political PBS guests, Mann was paid to watch countless hours of nonpolitical programming and report back to Tomlinson with his insights. Thus Tomlinson was secretly informed that during one Diane Rehm episode, “Carole King talked about her career…. James Taylor inspired her.” Or that, during The Tavis Smiley Show, actor Jamie Foxx “discussed the career of the late Ray Charles and the obstacles (blind and black) that he had to overcome to achieve success.” Next to Foxx’s name Mann affixed a lowercase “x,” which, because Mann labeled neutral guests with an “N,” may mean that Foxx’s politics are beyond neutral. Either that or he’s become a secret black Muslim.
Who is Fred Mann? For all we know, he could be a werewolf with supersensitive hearing that detects liberal bias inaudible to the average human’s ear. But since he and Tomlinson have not provided the same level of accountability they are demanding from others, it is impossible to know. Reporters who have attempted to locate him, including NPR, have all failed. Perhaps only Van Helsing could uncover Mann’s tracks. What is known is that in 1980, Mann worked on the senatorial campaign of Dan Quayle. Then, during Reagan’s second term, Mann went to work at the Virginia-based National Journalism Center as its job bank and alumni director until he retired last year. The National Journalism Center is directed by M. Stanton Evans, a former editor of the conservative Indianapolis News, and a founder in 1960 of the right-wing youth group Young Americans for Freedom. Through the center, Evans nurtured movement activists like Mann and trained aspiring young media players, including Ann Coulter and Maggie Gallagher, the conservative Catholic columnist who took federal money from the Bush Administration to promote its policies.
The Mann report may be one of the strangest documents ever produced by the federal government; however, it is not totally without value. Though it may be botched as an indictment of liberal media bias, it inadvertently offers an unfiltered glimpse into the recesses of the conservative mind.
The conservative media game was neatly summarized by Matt Labash, a former senior writer for The Weekly Standard, in a 2003 interview on the website journalismjobs.com. Labash explained: “The conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket.”
But until Ken Tomlinson, no conservative imagined that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would provide taxpayer funding for the “great little racket.”