Moyers Blasts Corporation for Public Broadcasting
[The Bush ideologues on the board of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting are raising the stakes over
alleged 'bias' in the programming of both public
television and public radio.
As its special target, Bill Moyers took the opportunity
to address more than 2,000 people at the National
Conference on Media Reform last weekend to throw down
Take Public Broadcasting Back - Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers' speech to the National Conference for
[The following is the prepared text for Bill Moyers
speech to the National Conference for Media Reform on
May 15, 2005. The event in St. Louis was organized and
Take Public Broadcasting Back
by Bill Moyers
From Free Press, May 16, 2003
I can't IMAGINE BETTER COMPANY ON THIS BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY
MORNING IN ST. LOUIS. You're church for me today, and
theres no congregation in the country where I would be
more likely to find more kindred souls than are
There are so many different vocations and callings in
this room - so many different interests and aspirations
of people who want to reform the media - that only a
presiding bishop like Bob McChesney with his great
ecumenical heart could bring us together for a weekend
What joins us all under Bobs embracing welcome is our
commitment to public media. Pat Aufderheide got it
right, I think, in the recent issue of In These Times
when she wrote: "This is a moment when public media
outlets can make a powerful case for themselves. Public
radio, public TV, cable access, public DBS channels,
media arts centers, youth media projects, nonprofit
Internet news services ... low-power radio and
webcasting are all part of a nearly invisible feature
of todays media map: the public media sector. They
exist not to make a profit, not to push an ideology,
not to serve customers, but to create a public - a
group of people who can talk productively with those
who don't share their views, and defend the interests
of the people who have to live with the consequences of
corporate and governmental power."
She gives examples of the possibilities. "Look at what
happened," she said, "when thousands of people who
watched Stanley Nelsons The Murder of Emmett Till on
their public television channels joined a postcard
campaign that re-opened the murder case after more than
half a century. Look at NPRs courageous coverage of
the Iraq war, an expensive endeavor that wins no points
from this administration. Look at Chicago Access
Networks Community Forum, where nonprofits throughout
the region can showcase their issues and find
The public media, she argues, for all our flaws, are a
very important resource in a noisy and polluted
You can also take wings reading Jason Millers May 4
article on Z Net about the mainstream media. While it
is true that much of the mainstream media is corrupted
by the influence of government and corporate interests,
Miller writes, there are still men and women in the
mainstream who practice a high degree of journalistic
integrity and who do challenge us with their stories
But the real hope "lies within the Internet with its 2
billion or more Web sites providing a wealth of
information drawn from almost unlimited resources that
span the globe. ... If knowledge is power, ones
capacity to increase that power increases exponentially
through navigation of the Internet for news and
Surely this is one issue that unites us as we leave
here today. The fight to preserve the Web from
corporate gatekeepers joins media, reformers, producers
and educators - and its a fight that has only just
I want to tell you about another fight we're in today.
The story I've come to share with you goes to the core
of our belief that the quality of democracy and the
quality of journalism are deeply entwined. I can tell
this story because I've been living it. Its been in
the news this week, including reports of more attacks
on a single journalist - yours truly - by the right-
wing media and their allies at the Corporation for
As some of you know, CPB was established almost 40
years ago to set broad policy for public broadcasting
and to be a firewall between political influence and
program content. What some on this board are now doing
today - led by its chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson - is too
important, too disturbing and yes, even too dangerous
for a gathering like this not to address.
We're seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-
old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and
punish journalists who tell the stories that make
princes and priests uncomfortable.
Let me assure you that I take in stride attacks by the
radical right-wingers who have not given up demonizing
me although I retired over six months ago. They've been
after me for years now, and I suspect they will be
stomping on my grave to make sure I don't come back
from the dead.
I should remind them, however, that one of our boys
pulled it off some 2,000 years ago - after the
Pharisees, Sadducees and Caesars surrogates thought
they had shut him up for good. Of course I won't be
expecting that kind of miracle, but I should put my
detractors on notice: They might just compel me out of
the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.
Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control,
using the government to threaten and intimidate. I mean
the people who are hollowing out middle-class security
even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the
working class in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds
up controlling Iraqs oil. I mean the people who turn
faith-based initiatives into a slush fund and who
encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as
not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking
their pockets. I mean the people who squelch free
speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and
consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of
reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic
Thats who I mean. And if thats editorializing, so be
it. A free press is one where its OK to state the
conclusion you're led to by the evidence.
One reason I'm in hot water is because my colleagues
and I at NOW didn't play by the conventional rules of
Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
and allow journalists to pretend they have done their
job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news,
they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the
Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in
World Policy Journal. (You'll also want to read his
book Debating War and Peace, Media Coverage of US
Intervention in the Post Vietnam Era.)
Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on
why the deep interests of the American public are so
poorly served by Beltway journalism. The "rules of our
game," says Ignatius, "make it hard for us to tee up an
issue ... without a news peg." He offers a case in
point: the debacle of Americas occupation of Iraq. "If
Senator so and so hasn't criticized postwar planning
for Iraq," says Ignatius, "then its hard for a
reporter to write a story about that."
Mermin also quotes public televisions Jim Lehrer
acknowledging that unless an official says something is
so, it isn't news. Why were journalists not discussing
the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, "the word
occupation ... was never mentioned in the run-up to the
war." Washington talked about the invasion as "a war of
liberation, not a war of occupation, so as a
consequence, "those of us in journalism never even
looked at the issue of occupation."
"In other words," says Jonathan Mermin, "if the
government isn't talking about it, we don't report it."
He concludes: "[Lehrers] somewhat jarring declaration,
one of many recent admissions by journalists that their
reporting failed to prepare the public for the
calamitous occupation that has followed the
liberation of Iraq, reveals just how far the actual
practice of American journalism has deviated from the
First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of
Take the example (also cited by Mermin) of Charles J.
Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for
the Associated Press, whose fall 2003 story on the
torture of Iraqis in American prisons - before a U.S.
Army report and photographs documenting the abuse
surfaced - was ignored by major American newspapers.
Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact
that "it was not an officially sanctioned story that
begins with a handout from an official source."
Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal
experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the
credibility with Beltway journalists of American
officials denying that such things happened. Judith
Miller of the New York Times, among others, relied on
the credibility of official but unnamed sources when
she served essentially as the government stenographer
for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass
These "rules of the game" permit Washington officials
to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all
too often simply to recount what officials say instead
of subjecting their words and deeds to critical
scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and
viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda,
reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides
of the spin invariably failing to provide context,
background or any sense of which claims hold up and
which are misleading.
I decided long ago that this wasn't healthy for
democracy. I came to see that "news is what people want
to keep hidden and everything else is publicity." In my
documentaries - whether on the Watergate scandals 30
years ago or the Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or
Bill Clintons fundraising scandals 10 years ago or,
five years ago, the chemical industrys long and
despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable
withholding of critical data about its toxic products
from its workers, I realized that investigative
journalism could not be a collaboration between the
journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not
satisfied by two opposing people offering competing
opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.
I came to believe that objective journalism means
describing the object being reported on, including the
little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the
people in power. In no way does this permit journalists
to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead,
making sure that your reporting and your conclusions
can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence.
This is always hard to do, but it has never been harder
than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-
be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George
Orwells 1984. They give us a program vowing "No Child
Left Behind," while cutting funds for educating
disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation cheerily
calling for "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" that
give us neither. And thats just for starters.
In Orwells 1984, the character Syme, one of the
writers of that totalitarian societys dictionary,
explains to the protagonist Winston, "don't you see
that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range
of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that
by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single
human being will be alive who could understand such a
conversation as we are having now? The whole climate of
thought will be different. In fact there will be no
thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not
thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is
An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a
people fed only on partisan information and opinion
that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly
obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of
propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, to ask
questions and be skeptical. That kind of orthodoxy can
kill a democracy - or worse.
I learned about this the hard way. I grew up in the
South, where the truth about slavery, race, and
segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven
from the classrooms and driven from the newsrooms. It
took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and
then it took another hundred years for the truth to
make us free.
Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued
with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that "might makes
right," we circled the wagons, listened only to each
other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn't
carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and
I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked me
after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They wanted
us to make it different from anything else on the air -
commercial or public broadcasting. They asked us to
tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a
venue to people who might not otherwise be heard.
That wasn't a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed by
studies published in leading peer-reviewed scholarly
journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College
sociologist William Hoynes. Extensive research on the
content of public television over a decade found that
political discussions on our public affairs programs
generally included a limited set of voices that offer a
narrow range of perspectives on current issues and
Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates, the
kind that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply
as audiences, this research found that public affairs
programs on PBS stations were populated by the standard
set of elite news sources. Whether government officials
and Washington journalists (talking about political
strategy) or corporate sources (talking about stock
prices or the economy from the investors viewpoint),
public television, unfortunately, all too often was
offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar
brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly
on commercial television.
Who didn't appear was also revealing. Hoynes and his
team found that in contrast to the conservative mantra
that public television routinely featured the voices of
anti-establishment critics, "alternative perspectives
were rare on public television and were effectively
drowned out by the stream of government and corporate
views that represented the vast majority of sources on
The so-called experts who got most of the face time
came primarily from mainstream news organizations and
Washington think tanks rather than diverse interests.
Economic news, for example, was almost entirely
refracted through the views of business people,
investors and business journalists. Voices outside the
corporate/Wall Street universe - nonprofessional
workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and
the general public were rarely heard. In sum, these two
studies concluded, the economic coverage was so narrow
that the views and the activities of most citizens
All this went against the Public Broadcasting Act of
1967 that created the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy
assistant to President Johnson, I attended my first
meeting to discuss the future of public broadcasting in
1964 in the office of the Commissioner of Education. I
know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act was
meant to provide an alternative to commercial
television and to reflect the diversity of the American
This, too, was on my mind when we assembled the team
for NOW. It was just after the terrorist attacks of
9/11. We agreed on two priorities. First, we wanted to
do our part to keep the conversation of democracy
going. That meant talking to a wide range of people
across the spectrum - left, right and center.
It meant poets, philosophers, politicians, scientists,
sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel AlIende, the
novelist, and Amity Shlaes, the columnist for the
Financial Times. It meant the former nun and best-
selling author Karen Armstrong, and it meant the right-
wing evangelical columnist Cal Thomas. It meant
Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from London,
David Suzuki from Canada, and Bernard Henry-Levi from
Paris. It also meant two successive editors of the Wall
Street Journal, Robert Bartley and Paul Gigot, the
editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, The Nations
Katrina vanden Heuvel and the L.A. Weeklys John
It means liberals like Frank Wu, Ossie Davis and
Gregory Nava, and conservatives like Frank Gaffney,
Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie. It meant
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Wilton Gregory of
the Catholic Bishops conference in this country. It
meant the conservative Christian activist and lobbyist,
Ralph Reed, and the dissident Catholic Sister Joan
Chittister. We threw the conversation of democracy open
to all comers.
Most of those who came responded the same way that Ron
Paul, the Republican and Libertarian congressman from
Texas, did when he wrote me after his appearance, "I
have received hundreds of positive e-mails from your
viewers. I appreciate the format of your program, which
allows time for a full discussion of ideas. ... I'm
tired of political shows featuring two guests shouting
over each other and offering the same arguments. ...
NOW was truly refreshing."
Hold your applause because thats not the point of the
story. We had a second priority. We intended to do
strong, honest and accurate reporting, telling stories
we knew people in high places wouldn't like.
I told our producers and correspondents that in our
field reporting our job was to get as close as possible
to the verifiable truth. This was all the more
imperative in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
America could be entering a long war against an elusive
and stateless enemy with no definable measure of
victory and no limit to its duration, cost or
foreboding fear. The rise of a homeland security state
meant government could justify extraordinary measures
in exchange for protecting citizens against unnamed,
even unproven, threats.
Furthermore, increased spending during a national
emergency can produce a spectacle of corruption behind
a smokescreen of secrecy. I reminded our team of the
words of the news photographer in Tom Stoppards play
who said, "People do terrible things to each other, but
its worse when everyone is kept in the dark."
I also reminded them of how the correspondent and
historian Richard Reeves answered a student who asked
him to define real news. "Real news," Reeves responded,
"is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms."
For these reasons and in that spirit, we went about
reporting on Washington as no one else in broadcasting
- except occasionally 60 Minutes - was doing. We
reported on the expansion of the Justice Departments
power of surveillance. We reported on the escalating
Pentagon budget and expensive weapons that didn't work.
We reported on how campaign contributions influenced
legislation and policy to skew resources to the
comfortable and well-connected while our troops were
fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq with inadequate
training and armor. We reported on how the Bush
administration was shredding the Freedom of Information
Act. We went around the country to report on how
closed-door, backroom deals in Washington were costing
ordinary workers and tax payers their livelihood and
security. We reported on offshore tax havens that
enable wealthy and powerful Americans to avoid their
fair share of national security and the social
And always - because what people know depends on who
owns the press - we kept coming back to the media
business itself, to how mega media corporations were
pushing journalism further and further down the
hierarchy of values, how giant radio cartels were
silencing critics while shutting communities off from
essential information, and how the mega media companies
were lobbying the FCC for the right to grow ever more
The broadcast caught on. Our ratings grew every year.
There was even a spell when we were the only public
affairs broadcast on PBS whose audience was going up
instead of down.
Our journalistic peers took notice. The Los Angeles
Times said, "NOWs team of reporters has regularly put
the rest of the media to shame, pursuing stories few
others bother to touch."
The Philadelphia Inquirer said our segments on the
sciences, the arts, politics and the economy were
"provocative public television at its best."
The Austin American-Statesman called NOW, "the perfect
antidote to todays high pitched decibel level, a
smart, calm, timely news program."
Frazier Moore of the Associated Press said we were
hard-edged when appropriate but never Hardball. "don't
expect combat. Civility reigns."
And the Baton Rouge Advocate said, "NOW invites viewers
to consider the deeper implication of the daily
headlines," drawing on "a wide range of viewpoints
which transcend the typical labels of the political
left or right."
Let me repeat that: NOW draws on "a wide range of
viewpoints which transcend the typical labels of the
political left or right."
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had been prophetic.
Open public television to the American people - offer
diverse interests, ideas and voices ... be fearless in
your belief in democracy - and they will come.
Hold your applause - thats not the point of the story.
The point of the story is something only a handful of
our team, including my wife and partner Judith Davidson
Moyers, and I knew at the time - that the success of
NOWs journalism was creating a backlash in Washington.
The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the
radical right of the Republican Party became. Thats
because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is
the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as
liberal is to tell the truth.
This is the point of my story: Ideologues don't want
you to go beyond the typical labels of left and right.
They embrace a world view that can't be proven wrong
because they will admit no evidence to the contrary.
They want your reporting to validate their belief
system and when it doesn't, God forbid.
Never mind that their own stars were getting a fair
shake on NOW: Gigot, Viguerie, David Keene of the
American Conservative Union, Stephen Moore, then with
the Club for Growth, and others. No, our reporting was
giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the
party line. It wasn't that we were getting it wrong.
Only three times in three years did we err factually,
and in each case we corrected those errors as soon as
we confirmed their inaccuracy. The problem was that we
were telling stories that partisans in power didn't
want told ... we were getting it right, not right-wing.
I've always thought the American eagle needed a left
wing and a right wing. The right wing would see to it
that economic interests had their legitimate concerns
addressed. The left wing would see to it that ordinary
people were included in the bargain. Both would keep
the great bird on course. But with two right wings or
two left wings, its no longer an eagle and its going
My occasional commentaries got to them as well.
Although apparently he never watched the broadcast (I
guess he couldn't take the diversity), Sen. Trent Lott
came out squealing like a stuck pig when after the
midterm elections in 2002 I described what was likely
to happen now that all three branches of government
were about to be controlled by one party dominated by
the religious, corporate and political right.
Instead of congratulating the winners for their
election victory as some network broadcasters had done
- or celebrating their victory as Fox, the Washington
Times, The Weekly Standard, talk radio and other
partisan Republican journalists had done - I provided a
little independent analysis of what the victory meant.
And I did it the old-fashioned way: I looked at the
record, took the winners at their word, and drew the
logical conclusion that they would use power as they
always said they would. And I set forth this conclusion
in my usual modest Texas way.
Events since then have confirmed the accuracy of what I
said, but, to repeat, being right is exactly what the
right doesn't want journalists to be.
Strange things began to happen. Friends in Washington
called to say that they had heard of muttered threats
that the PBS reauthorization would be held off "unless
Moyers is dealt with." The chairman of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, was said to
be quite agitated. Apparently there was apoplexy in the
right-wing aerie when I closed the broadcast one Friday
night by putting an American flag in my lapel and said
- well, heres exactly what I said:
"I wore my flag tonight. First time. Until now I
haven't thought it necessary to display a little
metallic icon of patriotism for everyone to see. It was
enough to vote, pay my taxes, perform my civic duties,
speak my mind, and do my best to raise our kids to be
"Sometimes I would offer a small prayer of gratitude
that I had been born in a country whose institutions
sustained me, whose armed forces protected me, and
whose ideals inspired me; I offered my hearts
affections in return. It no more occurred to me to
flaunt the flag on my chest than it did to pin my
mothers picture on my lapel to prove her sons love.
Mother knew where I stood; so does my country. I even
tuck a valentine in my tax returns on April 15.
"So whats this doing here? Well, I put it on to take
it back. The flags been hijacked and turned into a
logo - the trademark of a monopoly on patriotism. On
those Sunday morning talk shows, official chests appear
adorned with the flag as if it is the good housekeeping
seal of approval. During the State of the Union, did
you notice Bush and Cheney wearing the flag? How come?
No administrations patriotism is ever in doubt, only
its policies. And the flag bestows no immunity from
error. When I see flags sprouting on official lapels, I
think of the time in China when I saw Maos little red
book on every officials desk, omnipresent and unread.
"But more galling than anything are all those
moralistic ideologues in Washington sporting the flag
in their lapels while writing books and running Web
sites and publishing magazines attacking dissenters as
un-American. They are people whose ardor for war grows
disproportionately to their distance from the fighting.
They're in the same league as those swarms of corporate
lobbyists wearing flags and prowling Capitol Hill for
tax breaks even as they call for more spending on war.
"So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with flags
in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of
Washington think tanks, or argue that sacrifice is good
as long as they don't have to make it, or approve of
bribing governments to join the coalition of the
willing (after they first stash the cash). I put it on
to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we
should do to the people of Baghdad what Bin Laden did
to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the
government. And it reminds me that its not un-American
to think that war - except in self-defense - is a
failure of moral imagination, political nerve, and
diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your
government can mean standing up for your country."
That did it. That - and our continuing reporting on
overpricing at Haliburton, chicanery on K Street, and
the heavy, if divinely guided hand, of Tom DeLay.
When Senator Lott protested that the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting "has not seemed willing to deal
with Bill Moyers," a new member of the board, a
Republican fundraiser named Cheryl Halperin, who had
been appointed by President Bush, agreed that CPB
needed more power to do just that sort of thing. She
left no doubt about the kind of penalty she would like
to see imposed on malefactors like Moyers.
As rumors circulated about all this, I asked to meet
with the CPB board to hear for myself what was being
said. I thought it would be helpful for someone like
me, who had been present at the creation and part of
the system for almost 40 years, to talk about how CPB
had been intended to be a heat shield to protect public
broadcasters from exactly this kind of intimidation.
After all, I'd been there at the time of Richard
Nixons attempted coup. In those days, public
television had been really feisty and independent, and
often targeted for attacks. A Woody Allen special that
poked fun at Henry Kissinger in the Nixon
administration had actually been cancelled. The White
House had been so outraged over a documentary called
the "Banks and the Poor" that PBS was driven to adopt
new guidelines. That didn't satisfy Nixon, and when
public television hired two NBC reporters - Robert
McNeil and Sander Vanoucur to co-anchor some new
broadcasts, it was, for Nixon, the last straw.
According to White House memos at the time, he was
determined to "get the left-wing commentators who are
cutting us up off public television at once - indeed,
yesterday if possible."
Nixon vetoed the authorization for CPB with a message
written in part by his sidekick Pat Buchanan, who in a
private memo had castigated Vanocur, MacNeil,
Washington Week in Review, Black Journal and Bill
Moyers as "unbalanced against the administration."
It does sound familiar.
I always knew Nixon would be back. I just didn't know
this time he would be the chairman of the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting.
Buchanan and Nixon succeeded in cutting CPB funding for
all public affairs programming except for Black
Journal. They knocked out multiyear funding for the
National Public Affairs Center for Television,
otherwise known as NPACT. And they voted to take away
from the PBS staff the ultimate responsibility for the
production of programming.
But in those days - and this is what I wanted to share
with Kenneth Tomlinson and his colleagues on the CPB
board - there were still Republicans in America who did
not march in ideological lockstep and who stood on
principle against politicizing public television. The
chairman of the public station in Dallas was an
industrialist named Ralph Rogers, a Republican but no
party hack, who saw the White House intimidation as an
assault on freedom of the press and led a nationwide
effort to stop it.
The chairman of CPB was former Republican Congressman
Thomas Curtis, who was also a principled man. He
resigned, claiming White House interference. Within a
few months, the crisis was over. CPB maintained its
independence, PBS grew in strength, and Richard Nixon
would soon face impeachment and resign for violating
the public trust, not just public broadcasting.
Paradoxically, the very National Public Affairs Center
for Television that Nixon had tried to kill - NPACT -
put PBS on the map by rebroadcasting in primetime each
days Watergate hearings, drawing huge ratings night
after night and establishing PBS as an ally of
democracy. We should still be doing that sort of thing.
That was 33 years ago. I thought the current CPB board
would like to hear and talk about the importance of
standing up to political interference. I was wrong.
They wouldn't meet with me. I tried three times. And it
was all downhill after that.
I was nave, I guess. I simply never imagined that any
CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the
line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it
out for the White House. But thats what Kenneth
Tomlinson has done.
On Fox News this week he denied that hes carrying out
a White House mandate or that hes ever had any
conversations with any Bush administration official
about PBS. But the New York Times reported that he
enlisted Karl Rove to help kill a proposal that would
have put on the CPB board people with experience in
local radio and television. The Times also reported
that "on the recommendation of administration
officials" Tomlinson hired a White House flack (I know
the genre) named Mary Catherine Andrews as a senior CPB
staff member. While she was still reporting to Karl
Rove at the White House, Andrews set up CPBs new
ombudsmans office and had a hand in hiring the two
people who will fill it, one of whom once worked for
.. you guessed it ... Kenneth Tomlinson.
I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the
doubt, but I can't. According to a book written about
the Readers Digest when he was its Editor-in-Chief, he
surrounded himself with other right-wingers - a pattern
hes now following at the Corporation for Public
There is Ms. Andrews from the White House. For acting
president, he hired Ken Ferree from the FCC, who was
Michael Powells enforcer when Powell was deciding how
to go about allowing the big media companies to get
even bigger. According to a forthcoming book, one of
Ferrees jobs was to engage in tactics designed to
dismiss any serious objection to media monopolies. And,
according to Eric Alterman, Ferree was even more
contemptuous than Michael Powell of public
participation in the process of determining media
ownership. Alterman identifies Ferree as the FCC
staffer who decided to issue a "protective order"
designed to keep secret the market research on which
the Republican majority on the commission based their
vote to permit greater media consolidation.
Its not likely that with guys like this running the
CPB some public television producer is going to say,
"Hey, lets do something on how big media is affecting
Call it preventive capitulation.
As everyone knows, Mr. Tomlinson also put up a
considerable sum of money, reportedly over $5 million,
for a new weekly broadcast featuring Paul Gigot and the
editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Gigot is a
smart journalist, a sharp editor, and a fine fellow. I
had him on NOW several times and even proposed that he
become a regular contributor. The conversation of
democracy - remember? All stripes.
But I confess to some puzzlement that the Wall Street
Journal, which in the past editorialized to cut PBS off
the public tap, is now being subsidized by American
taxpayers although its parent company, Dow Jones, had
revenues in just the first quarter of this year of $400
million. I thought public television was supposed to be
an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it.
But in this weird deal, you get a glimpse of the kind
of programming Mr. Tomlinson apparently seems to
prefer. Alone of the big major newspapers, the Wall
Street Journal has no op-ed page where different
opinions can compete with its right-wing editorials.
The Journals PBS broadcast is just as homogenous --
right- wingers talking to each other. Why not $5
million to put the editors of The Nation on PBS? Or Amy
Goodmans Democracy Now! You balance right-wing talk
with left-wing talk.
Theres more. Only two weeks ago did we learn that Mr.
Tomlinson had spent $10,000 last year to hire a
contractor who would watch my show and report on
political bias. Thats right. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson
spent $10,000 of your money to hire a guy to watch NOW
to find out who my guests were and what my stories
were. Ten thousand dollars.
Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week, you could pick up a copy of
TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even
cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can
save you up to 62 percent.
For that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the
show yourself. You could have made it easier with a
double Jim Beam, your favorite. Or you could have gone
online where the listings are posted. Hell, you could
have called me - collect - and I would have told you.
Ten thousand dollars. That would have bought five
tables at Thursday nights "Conservative Salute for Tom
DeLay." Better yet, that ten grand would pay for the
books in an elementary school classroom or an upgrade
of its computer lab.
But having sent that cash, what did he find? Only Mr.
Tomlinson knows. Hes apparently decided not to share
the results with his staff, or his board or leak it to
Robert Novak. The public paid for it - but Ken
Tomlinson acts as if he owns it.
In a May 10 op-ed piece, in Reverend Moons
conservative Washington Times, Tomlinson maintained he
had not released the findings because public
broadcasting is such a delicate institution that he did
not want to "damage public broadcastings image with
controversy." Where I come from in Texas, we shovel
that kind of stuff every day.
As we learned only this week, thats not the only news
Mr. Tomlinson tried to keep to himself. As reported by
Jeff Chesters Center for Digital Democracy (of which I
am a supporter), there were two public opinion surveys
commissioned by CPB but not released to the media - not
even to PBS and NPR. According to a source who talked
to Salon.com, "The first results were too good and
[Tomlinson] didn't believe them. After the Iraq War,
the board commissioned another round of polling, and
they thought they'd get worse results."
But they didn't. The data revealed that, in reality,
public broadcasting has an 80 percent favorable rating
and that "the majority of the U.S. adult population
does not believe that the news and information
programming on public broadcasting is biased." In fact,
more than half believed PBS provided more in-depth and
trustworthy news and information than the networks and
55 percent said PBS was "fair and balanced."
Tomlinson is the man, by the way, who was running The
Voice of America back in 1984 when a partisan named
Charlie Wick was politicizing the United States
Information Agency of which Voice of America was a
part. It turned out there was a blacklist of people who
had been removed from the list of prominent Americans
sent abroad to lecture on behalf of America and the
USIA. Whats more, it was discovered that evidence as
to how those people were chosen to be on the blacklist,
more than 700 documents had been shredded. Among those
on the blacklists of journalists, writers, scholars and
politicians were dangerous left-wing subversives like
Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin, Gary Hart, Ralph Nader,
Ben Bradlee, Coretta Scott King and David Brinkley.
The person who took the fall for the blacklist was
another right-winger. He resigned. Shortly thereafter,
so did Kenneth Tomlinson, who had been one of the
people in the agency with the authority to see the
lists of potential speakers and allowed to strike
peoples names. Let me be clear about this: There is no
record, apparently, of what Ken Tomlinson did. We don't
know whether he supported or protested the blacklisting
of so many American liberals. Or what he thinks of it
But I had hoped Bill OReilly would have asked him
about it when he appeared on The OReilly Factor this
week. He didn't. Instead, Tomlinson went on attacking
me with OReilly egging him on, and he went on denying
he was carrying out a partisan mandate despite
published reports to the contrary. The only time you
could be sure he was telling the truth was at the end
of the broadcast when he said to OReilly, "We love
We love your show.
I wrote Kenneth Tomlinson on Friday and asked him to
sit down with me for one hour on PBS and talk about all
this. I suggested that he choose the moderator and the
There is one other thing in particular I would like to
ask him about. In his op-ed essay this week in
Washington Times, Ken Tomlinson tells of a phone call
from an old friend complaining about my bias. Wrote Mr.
Tomlinson: "The friend explained that the foundation he
heads made a six-figure contribution to his local
television station for digital conversion. But he
declared there would be no more contributions until
something was done about the networks bias."
Apparently thats Kenneth Tomlinsons method of
governance. Money talks and buys the influence it
I would like to ask him to listen to a different voice.
This letter came to me last year from a woman in New
York, five pages of handwriting. She said, among other
things, that "after the worst sneak attack in our
history, theres not been a moment to reflect, a moment
to let the horror resonate, a moment to feel the pain
and regroup as humans. No, since I lost my husband on
9/11, not only our familys world, but the whole world
seems to have gotten even worse than that tragic day."
She wanted me to know that on 9/11 her husband was not
on duty. "He was home with me having coffee. My
daughter and grandson, living only five blocks from the
Towers, had to be evacuated with masks - terror all
around. ... My other daughter, near the Brooklyn Bridge
.. my son in high school. But my Charlie took off like
a lightning bolt to be with his men from the Special
Operations Command. Bring my gear to the plaza, he
told his aide immediately after the first plane struck
the North Tower. ... He took action based on the
responsibility he felt for his job and his men and for
those Towers that he loved."
In the FDNY, she said, chain-of- command rules extend
to every captain of every fire house in the city. If
anything happens in the firehouse - at any time - even
if the captain isn't on duty or on vacation - that
captain is responsible for everything that goes on
So she asked: "Why is this administration responsible
for nothing? All that they do is pass the blame. This
is not leadership. ... Watch everyone pass the blame
again in this recent torture case [Abu Ghraib] of Iraqi
And then she wrote: "We need more programs like yours
to wake America up. ... Such programs must continue
amidst the sea of false images and name-calling that
divide America now. ... Such programs give us hope that
search will continue to get this imperfect human
condition on to a higher plane. So thank you and all of
those who work with you. Without public broadcasting,
all we would call news would be merely carefully
Enclosed with the letter was a check made out to
"Channel 13 - NOW" for $500. I keep a copy of that
check above my desk to remind me of what journalism is
about. Kenneth Tomlinson has his demanding donors. I'll
take the widows mite any day.
Someone has said recently that the great raucous mob
that is democracy is rarely heard and that its not
just the fault of the current residents of the White
House and the capital. Theres too great a chasm
between those of us in this business and those who
depend on TV and radio as their window to the world. We
treat them too much as an audience and not enough as
citizens. They're invited to look through the window
but too infrequently to come through the door and to
participate, to make public broadcasting truly public."
To that end, five public interest groups including
Common Cause and Consumers Union will be holding
informational sessions around the country to "take
public broadcasting back" - to take it back from
threats, from interference, from those who would tell
us we can only think what they command us to think.
Its a worthy goal.
We're big kids; we can handle controversy and
diversity, whether its political or religious points
of view or two loving lesbian moms and their kids,
visited by a cartoon rabbit. We are not too fragile or
insecure to see America and the world entire for all
their magnificent and sometimes violent confusion.
"There used to be a thing or a commodity we put great
store by," John Steinbeck wrote. "It was called the