The Putsch At Public Broadcasting

Kenneth Tomlinson, former Corporation for Public Broadcasting chairman has resigned from the corporation's board after the panel reviewed an investigative report on his tenure.
This column was written by Eric Alterman.
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."