You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bully Pulpit

Public broadcasting abroad.

Last fall, a Bush-bashing ad in The New York Times included among its signatories the name of Norman Pattiz, the celebrated creator of Radio Sawa, a radio network fashioned to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. This year, some say as a result of the ad, Pattiz has found himself battling for his seat on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent government commission that oversees the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Free Liberty, and Radio Sawa and its sister TV network, Alhurra. The commission, which consists of four Republicans and four Democrats, along with the secretary of state, has never before concerned itself with the extracurricular political activities of its members. "Democrats and Republicans found a way to agree with one another," says one longtime BBG participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was David Broder's dream." So what happened?

The answer is Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. As chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Tomlinson has spent the last two years living a conservative fantasy--making life hell for NPR and PBS. Most notoriously, Tomlinson commissioned a study showing public broadcasting to be riddled with liberal bias. (To be sure, the study took a rather expansive definition of liberalism, counting such heirs to Eugene McCarthy as the gun-loving pro-lifer Bob Barr.)

While these antics have spurred outraged op-eds and an inspector general's investigation, another Tomlinson scandal has gone largely unnoticed. For the last three years, Tomlinson has moonlighted as chairman of the BBG--which controls networks that are among the most important vehicles for public diplomacy. Given the rampant anti-Americanism in the world these days, that makes this job arguably more consequential than his rule over Oscar the Grouch and Garrison Keillor. Unfortunately, he hasn't treated the BBG with any greater gravitas. He has deployed a similar set of tactics: purging the bureaucracy of political enemies, zealously rooting out perceived "liberal bias," and generally politicizing institutions that have resisted ideological intrusions for decades. One of Tomlinson's fellow broadcasting governors told me, "In every story about the CPB, you could substitute BBG."

Tomlinson arrived at the BBG in August of 2002, thanks, in no small measure, to the backing of his longtime buddy, Karl Rove. By all accounts, he was never inclined to join the BBG's festival of bipartisan bonhomie. When he had served as editor of Reader's Digest, he was as much a conservative activist as a journalist. In 1996, he quit the magazine world to work on Steve Forbes's presidential campaign. (The Washington Post described him as Forbes's "closest friend.") And he had served with Ed Meese and Robert Bork on the board of the American Civil Rights Union, an organization established in 1998 to counter the aclu.

Indeed, his arrival instantly crushed the old ethos. Whereas the BBG once opened its meetings to the public, Tomlinson began restricting substantive discussions to executive sessions. Behind closed doors, his colleagues say, he set about restructuring the organization to minimize the power of individual commissioners (e.g., potentially obstreperous Democrats), insisting that he possessed the power to unilaterally hire and fire any staffer. When Robert M. Ledbetter, a Mississippi broadcaster nominated in 2003 at the behest of Trent Lott, joined with Democrats to stymie many of these changes, Tomlinson, according to past and current board members, blocked his reappointment.

Tomlinson has also focused on deposing staff that he considers to be Democratic sympathizers. Last winter, he prevailed in a lengthy battle to remove Bruce Sherman, the BBG's deputy executive director and author of Radio Sawa's strategic plan, from his post. According to Sherman's colleagues, Tomlinson suspected him of harboring a stealth political agenda. Myrna Whitworth, a former acting director of VOA, told me, "Tomlinson regards Sherman as a Democratic plant." Tomlinson has campaigned to remove other imagined enemies, such as Bert Kleinman, the head of Middle East Television Network, and Tom Dine, the respected longtime head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (Dine has since announced that he is leaving his post.) "You've got a real culture of fear in the place," Whitworth told me.

Tomlinson's colleagues suspect him of despising Pattiz, his greatest internal enemy, for less high-minded reasons. Three governors who served with Tomlinson told me that the chairman couldn't stand last month's Wall Street Journal profile and other fawning attention Pattiz has received. But, colleagues say, Tomlinson zeroed in on his rival's political activities as grounds for the White House to block Pattiz. Pattiz's political patron, Senator Joseph Biden, hasn't accepted this fate. To voice his dissent, he briefly placed a hold on Dina Powell, President Bush's nominee for deputy undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

With all the machinations that have consumed the BBG, it's not surprising that Tomlinson's style has rubbed off on actual broadcast content. Under his reign, longtime civil servants have found themselves replaced by Republican ideologues. There's no better example than VOA Director David Jackson, who arrived via the Pentagon public affairs office. Reporters, editors, and producers at VOA insist that Jackson has pressured them to portray the administration favorably. These instances have been catalogued by Sanford Ungar, a former VOA director, in a Foreign Affairs essay, and by Carolyn Weaver, a voa-tv reporter, in an e-mail to Jackson that I obtained. Their main complaint is Iraq coverage. Ungar writes: "Editors have repeatedly been asked to develop `positive stories' emphasizing U.S. success in Iraq, rather than report car bombings and terrorist attacks." Jackson, for example, sent an e-mail urging reporters to cover restored cell phone service: "This story offers so many angles." (Like Tikrit's dirt-cheap friends and family rate.) VOA reporters also say that they have been asked to limit criticisms of the war. Management insisted on removing photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib from VOA's website. And, after U.S. forces raided Iraqi National Congress headquarters in the spring of 2004, Jackson chastised reporters for referring to Ahmed Chalabi as a "a favorite of the Pentagon."

Of course, VOA exists to make America's case to the world. But, in the Tomlinson era, VOA management has focused far more intently on burnishing the image of the Bush administration and the Republican Party--a task that falls outside the organization's ambit. Jackson, for instance, warned reporters not to dwell on "Bush-bashing" at last summer's Democratic National Convention. When a reporter produced a story on the diversity of Democratic delegates, the story was held. The reporter was told to wait until the Republican convention and write about both parties' diversity efforts then.

In the meantime, the BBG has descended into rancor. Democrats and staff call Tomlinson "paranoid" and describe his "angry outbursts." This ill will has come at a cost. Governors from both parties say squabbling has diverted attention from the development of a coherent strategy. For instance, the BBG can't develop a plan for capitalizing on the surprisingly large Muslim audiences captured by Sawa, because it wastes so much time debating Tomlinson's personnel moves. And there are larger issues to resolve. Mark Helmke, an aide to Senate Foreign Relations Chair Richard Lugar, bluntly criticized the BBG in a presentation to the Heritage Foundation last month: "The world has radically changed, but the institution supporting international broadcasting has not."

How bad is Tomlinson? His opponents told me that they couldn't wait for Karen Hughes to emerge from retirement and assume her new job as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy--a post potentially more powerful than Tomlinson's in devising strategy for the battle for hearts and minds. They hope that she will take her new mission seriously and won't abide the silly intramural fighting that now consumes the BBG--that even she will be disgusted by Tomlinson's power plays. "She's a relative pragmatist," a BBG member told me. In other words, the Democrats are banking on Bush's most fanatically loyal spinmeister to diminish Republican partisanship within the organization. Yes, it's that bad.