Bully Pulpit

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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.

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