Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has said on several occasions that the Bush administration does not interfere with how the CPB operates.
On several matters over the past year, however, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has pursued policies and the appointment of executives at the behest of the White House, according to Tomlinson's own e-mails.
NPR obtained these e-mails from a CPB official who is unhappy with Tomlinson's leadership there. The official insisted on anonymity, citing fears of job retaliation.
One instance involved an initiative of Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican. Burns sought to give public television and radio stations more say in naming board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The board has nine slots. The members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Only five can belong to the president's party.
The stations strongly backed the measure. But Tomlinson didn't. Last July 21, he made that clear in an e-mail he wrote to Kathleen Cox. She became CPB's CEO and president last summer but was forced out in April.
Tomlinson wrote: "The White House has issued guidance. WH officially opposed to the Burns amendment."
Politics and Credibility
John Lawson, the president of the Association of Public Television Stations, an advocacy group for PBS stations, says he's worked well with Tomlinson in the past. But he says Tomlinson has undermined the strength of the public broadcasting world.
"Ken has politicized this institution at a very vulnerable time," Lawson said in an interview.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on a spending bill late this week that would cut CPB's budget next year by a quarter — or $100 million. Tomlinson has said he expects most of those funds to be restored by the Senate.
Lawson said the problem isn't that the White House is playing politics — it's that Tomlinson is contorting the core mission of the CPB. "The CPB is supposed to be a heat shield, and yet we've been dragged into one of the worst and most damaging controversies in our history," he said.
The CPB provides federal subsidies for NPR and PBS member stations and some of their programs.
Under the law, the CPB board is charged with protecting public broadcasting from political pressure. Its mandate also includes ensuring that news coverage is balanced.
Through a spokesman, Tomlinson declined to comment on the details of this story. But some critics and supporters say any CPB chairman must be acutely aware of the political forces affecting public broadcasting.
The Chairman's Agenda
Tomlinson is a Republican who was first appointed to the CPB board by President Clinton. He was reappointed by President Bush and became chairman in 2003.
Since becoming chairman, Tomlinson has moved to address what he contends is the left-leaning lineup of news programs at PBS by advocating the addition of new shows with a conservative outlook. He has pursued ways to monitor NPR's coverage of the Middle East, which he says skews against Israel. And he named two ombudsmen to handle complaints about news coverage by NPR and PBS.
"I certainly want CPB to continue its role as a firewall to protect the journalism of public broadcasting," Tomlinson told NPR in May. "But I also want a common-sense, loose agreement that we're also going to seek a certain degree of balance in our program offerings."
"Let's [reach] agreement on those general terms — and let's stop the food fight," he said.
In past media interviews, Tomlinson has said the White House does not interfere in the operations of the CPB.
But in e-mails obtained by NPR, Tomlinson repeatedly aided a job candidate that he said arrived with White House backing. At the time, Ed McFadden was the chief speechwriter for John Ashcroft — then the U.S. attorney general.
On Dec. 7, 2004, Tomlinson wrote Kathleen Cox that he had sent her McFadden's resume so she could interview him for a job as senior vice president for communications. Tomlinson said the Ashcroft aide had "the strong support of the White House."
Two weeks later, Tomlinson emailed Cox from Italy asking for a progress report. Cox wrote that she had other, stronger candidates for the job. She wrote, "McFadden might make a good junior person but does not have experience of others identified. I will talk to him in any event."
Tomlinson's immediate response: "Considering Dina Powell's recommendation, I'm really surprised McFadden did not make the cut. Very surprised, considering the people I've seen in the job."
Dina Powell is the White House director of personnel. McFadden confirmed to NPR that he met with Cox in February. No job was offered, and he now works as an executive for a telecommunications firm.
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a liberal media advocacy group, says the public needs to recognize that the CPB operates in a politically charged environment.
"The board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting always has to take in consideration what the White House and the political leaders in Congress are thinking," Chester said. "There's a balancing act."
But Chester said Tomlinson has failed to strike a proper balance by infusing politics into so many decisions at CPB: "I think what Mr. Tomlinson has been doing — in essence, allowing the White House to help direct plans of the CPB — is unprecedented."
Changes at the CPB
The board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is meeting this week to select a new president. One of the prime candidates — someone championed by Tomlinson — is Patricia Harrison. She's an assistant U.S. secretary of state. But she's also a former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
Lawson and other critics say her appointment would be inappropriate because, they say, it would represent a politicization of the position. Three Democratic senators asked Tomlinson to delay naming a new president for CPB. One, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, called on him to step down.
Prompted by complaints from two House Democrats, the CPB's inspector general is investigating whether Tomlinson's actions constitute political interference. Through a spokesman, Tomlinson says he expects to be vindicated by the inspector general's report.