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Outcry Grows Over Public TV, Radio

June 22, 2005|Matea Gold and Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Amid mounting calls for his removal, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting rejected charges Tuesday that he had injected partisanship into the agency.

Speaking at the CPB's quarterly meeting, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, a Republican, defended his efforts to examine the political slant of programming, saying that the CPB had a responsibility to ensure balance on the taxpayer-supported system.

"I sought to keep the discussion over balance within the public broadcasting family ... but as events have proven, this is an enormously explosive issue and we could not contain it in the family," he said. "I'm confident we will eventually resolve our differences."

Minutes before he spoke, 16 Democratic senators released a letter asking President Bush to remove the presidential appointee from his post at the CPB, a nonprofit that distributes federal funds to public television and radio stations. They accused Tomlinson of "undermining, underfunding and ultimately undoing its mission."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said Tomlinson issued a relatively tepid statement last week when the House Appropriations Committee approved a 46% cut to public broadcasting and noted that he hired an outside consultant to monitor the content of the program "Now" last year, when Bill Moyers was the host.

The consultant, Fred Mann, categorized segments as "pro-Bush" and "anti-Bush," according to copies of the reports obtained by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a frequent White House critic, was labeled "liberal" because he questioned Bush's policy in Iraq.

The corporation's inspector general is examining Tomlinson's 21-month tenure as chairman, including his hiring of a former White House official to develop an ombudsman's office and his push for PBS to add conservative programming.

At a news conference, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said "a political imprimatur of one party is being placed on this great system."

The CPB, signed into law by President Johnson in 1967, was established to provide a shield between Congress and public broadcasters. Among its responsibilities is ensuring objectivity and balance in programming.

The White House declined Democrats' request to remove Tomlinson, noting that he was appointed to the board by President Clinton in 2000. Bush reappointed him in 2003. "We stand by the chairman," said spokeswoman Erin Healy.

Tomlinson reiterated his intention to stay.

"I'm confident when the inspector general is finished with his investigation that all will see that not only did I do nothing illegal, but I also did nothing that was not in keeping with the traditions of CPB," he said after the board meeting.

During Tuesday's meeting, board member Ernest J. Wilson III said he had been flooded with letters and e-mails from people saying the debate over political bias was overshadowing the looming budget cuts.

"Of all American broadcasters of television -- CBS, NBC, CNN, even Fox -- who is judged to be the most fair and balanced in the land?" Wilson asked. "Public broadcasting."

Board member Beth Courtney agreed, noting that polls have consistently found that Americans trust public broadcasting more than other media.

But board member Katherine Anderson praised the chairman's actions, saying she was "appreciative and proud that objectivity and balance have been brought to the forefront."

She was joined by board member Gay Hart Gaines, who said Tomlinson "has displayed rare courage and restraint in the face of some pretty outrageous attacks in the press."

However, dissidents on the board won unanimous support for three resolutions. The board committed to "working aggressively" to restore the budget cuts, noted that its mission extended beyond ensuring objectivity and vowed to collaborate with its partners.

The board did not discuss the most significant action expected this week: the hiring of a chief executive.

Tomlinson's reported pick -- Patricia de Stacy Harrison, an assistant secretary of State who served as co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee -- has drawn objections from public broadcasters and Democrats.

A committee composed of Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, Tomlinson and Anderson submitted five finalists to the board this week. Cruz said the board was "continuing the process."

Tomlinson declined to comment on the CEO search. But he defended the notion of hiring political activists, noting that previous CPB executives had included congressional candidates, campaign staffers and White House allies.

"When people with partisan traditions come to institutions like CPB, they leave these traditions of partisanship at the door," he said.

The chairman said PBS and National Public Radio allies should focus on restoring the budget cuts, which the full House is expected to take up Thursday.

But Democrats accused Tomlinson of making public broadcasting vulnerable.

"Ken Tomlinson has facilitated the attack upon the institution that he is tasked with protecting," Massachusetts Rep. Edward J. Markey said at a midday rally outside the Capitol, standing with reams of paper representing more than 1 million signatures gathered by opposing the cuts.

He was joined by members of Congress, children's advocates and life-size characters from popular PBS shows, including Clifford the Big Red Dog.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and 23 other Democratic senators released a letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asking him to restore the House cuts when his education and labor subcommittee takes up the matter later this summer.

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