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The CPB Investigation

November 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPOKESPERSON: I want to thank especially the inspector general.

JEFFREY BROWN: The release today of a report by the agency’s inspector general comes amid a tumultuous year at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a nonprofit private organization established by Congress in 1967. It helps fund PBS and National Public Radio as well as individual programs, including the NewsHour.

KENNETH TOMLINSON: Let’s call the session of CPB board of directors to order.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s report examined actions by Kenneth Tomlinson, who served as CPB chairman until September. Tomlinson had remained on the CPB board, but resigned earlier this month after objecting to the preliminary findings of the inspector general’s report.

As chairman, he’d been vocal in alleging liberal bias in public broadcasting and helped bring a new conservative-oriented program, the Journal Editorial Report, to PBS. Today’s report criticized part of his involvement in that process.

Last year, Tomlinson commissioned a study examining PBS and NPR programming for bias.

JEFFREY BROWN: The study focused largely on the program NOW, then hosted by PBS veteran Bill Moyers. Today’s report said Tomlinson acted improperly in procuring the contract for the study but not in acting to evaluate balance in PBS programming.

In June of this year, Tomlinson selected Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, for the presidency of CPB. Her selection was criticized in today’s report as having been subjected to a “political test” by Tomlinson.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now to look at today’s report is Paul Farhi, who has covered the CPB story for the Washington Post. Welcome, Paul.

PAUL FARHI: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ken Tomlinson stirred up a lot of controversy with his call for political balance, but is it correct to say that today’s report really focused on process, how he went about doing things?

PAUL FARHI: More so about process, but there were strong suggestions about political orientation going on at the CPB. For instance, the hiring of Patricia Harrison as president; there were a series of e-mails going back and forth between Tomlinson and the White House. The inspector general found that those e-mails might have influenced his decision and that he was seeking a political choice rather than the best qualified candidate.

There were suggestions that there was a political overtone in some of what he was doing, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Regarding the creation of the Journal Editorial Report, which features members of the Wall Street Journal, what does the report say that he did wrong?

PAUL FARHI: He did many things wrong, according to the report. He was involved in the creation of the program in the advising of Paul Gigot, the host of the program, also in seeking and securing the funding for that program.

Now, according to the CPB’s own guidelines, directors of the board are not supposed to be involved in programming decisions in this way. The inspector general found that this may have violated his fiduciary responsibility because he was also seeking funding for it.

There was no suggestion, however, that he strong-armed PBS to get that program on the air; however, it left a strong suggestion that he had used his influence to get that program on the schedule.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a line in which he told CPB staff to threaten to withhold some funds from PBS if they don’t balance programming. Those funds were never withheld according to this report.

PAUL FARHI: That’s right. That was just an e-mail that went internally. It’s not clear that that threat was communicated directly to PBS but I would say in general, if you were at PBS, it wasn’t very hard to read the way the chairman of the CPB — the funding organization — wanted things to go.

So if you were Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS, you probably had a very strong indication that the chairman wanted certain things on the air.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another issue we referred to in our setup was the hiring of a consultant to look into bias on programs. Now, what did the report say about that?

PAUL FARHI: Well, that this consultant had interviewed, or at least scrutinized talk shows that were on both PBS and NPR, looking for the political orientation of these guests.

The inspector general made no determination as to whether there was some political shenanigans involved. What he did say was this contract, this letting of this contract to this consultant was improper because Ken Tomlinson, the CPB board’s chairman, had not adequately informed the board.

So he made no determination about the political nature of that contract, simply that there was a process that was violated.

JEFFREY BROWN: He didn’t go through the right process.

PAUL FARHI: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the inspector general didn’t dispute that Mr. Tomlinson and the board of CPB has a right to look into this question of objectivity and balance.

PAUL FARHI: That’s right, except that there was no real definition of “objectivity and balance.” It was sort of left to some subjective determination as to how one would find balance or objectivity on that programming — eye of the beholder.

And in fact one of the reforms suggested by the inspector general was to better define how you would go about measuring this subjective question of objectivity.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they do, the report does refer to this CPB complex role — it says, “complex and sometimes contradictory role,” that sort of underlies this whole thing, which is to act as a so-called heat shield to protect against government influence, but at the same time, it is allowed to look at objectivity.

PAUL FARHI: That’s exactly right. For 40 years, since the creation of CPB, they’ve had this dual role which does seem to be a bit contradictory. On the one hand, we want you to prevent political pressure. On the other hand, we want you to ensure balance.

Well, sometimes protecting balance and objectivity looks like political pressure as a lot of people within the Public Broadcasting System and the public broadcasting community complained when Tomlinson came in looking in looking for this balance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Mr. Tomlinson attached a response denying any wrongdoing, and saying that a lot of what he did he thought he had the backing and the okay.

PAUL FARHI: Yes, and that it wasn’t entirely his responsibility to inform the board directly that there was staff and there were controls in place, or should have been controls in place that would have adequately informed them, and that he, in a sense, pointed the finger at the staff and said the staff should have been more attentive to seeing to it that the board was fully apprised of these contracts and these initiatives that he was carrying out.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the “what next” category, you referred to the report, called for some overhaul in the governance of CPB.

PAUL FARHI: Yes, they’ve started a committee within the board to take a look at governance issues. They’ve also started a committee within the board to look at compensation issues so the contracting problems won’t arise again. It’s a really long list of reforms that they’ve undertaken that were recommend by the inspector general that the board has adopted.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the report, of course, was asked for by several Democratic congressmen months ago.

PAUL FARHI: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did they — any hint from them today about any further action?

PAUL FARHI: Well, they are reviewing the study, reviewing the investigation, and what’s interesting is that some of the groups that have been on protesting about this whole issue have been calling for the resignation of the president of CPB saying that she was, in a sense, a political appointee, that the criteria was corrupted by Ken Tomlinson, and that she should resign. She has refused to do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: No sign of that.

PAUL FARHI: No sign at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, thanks a lot.

PAUL FARHI: Thank you.