WASHINGTON – For many Americans, public TV means “Sesame Street,” “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Antiques Roadshow.” But for Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it came to mean liberal bias in its news and public affairs programming.

Two years ago, the Republican former head of Voice of America and Reader’s Digest set out to restore what he called objectivity and balance to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

Now Tomlinson’s makeover attempts have made their own news: Angry chiefs at PBS and NPR; an investigation of whether his actions amounted to illegal political interference; and questions about whether he may have overreached.

Media specialist Patricia Aufderheide said Tomlinson’s actions show a “wanton disregard” for the corporation’s mission.

“It’s not CPB’s job to introduce politicization; its job is to insulate public broadcasting from partisan politics,” said Aufderheide, who teaches at American University’s Center for Social Media in Washington.

But conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell said the corporation’s “serious” plans to achieve a better balance on views will allow PBS to “have more success, getting more and more federal funding.”

The serious plans included Tomlinson’s quiet hiring last year of a private consultant to monitor the content of Bill Moyers’ show “Now” for “anti-Bush” and “anti-business” biases. Moyers left in December, but the half-hour weekly program continues.

At the corporation’s suggestion, PBS added shows featuring conservative commentator Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Carlson has since left for MSNBC.

Tomlinson declined to renew the contract of Kathleen A. Cox, the veteran executive director of the corporation, installing as acting president and CEO W. Kenneth Ferree, a telecommunications lawyer who served as media adviser to former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

When Ferree got the job, he said that he neither watched PBS nor listened to NPR. He declined a request for an interview.

Through the quasi-governmental corporation, Congress contributes 15 percent of the $2.2 billion annual public-broadcasting budget.

The system was designed to insulate PBS and NPR from political fiat, and the corporation has no legislative authority to tell NPR or PBS what to do, though part of its mandate is to ensure “objectivity and balance.”

Tomlinson’s mostly behind-the-scenes campaign recently reached a wider audience with the appointment of two ombudsmen to monitor PBS content, and with public sparring between Tomlinson and PBS president Pat Mitchell.

In a speech at the end of May, Mitchell defended her organization’s integrity and said it would not be deterred by political threats.

“PBS has built and maintained a steadfast resolve to never give in to pressures to reflect a political agenda,” she said.

In an e-mailed response to a question last week, Mitchell said: “PBS is not the property of any single political party or activist group or foundation or funder with an agenda of any kind.”

NPR president Kevin Klose called “unsupportable” an assertion by Tomlinson that NPR’s reporting on the Middle East is unbalanced.

Klose added that the corporation’s chairman has not consulted with NPR. “All his actions have been unilateral,” Klose said in an interview. “He was talking episodically to other media without any substantive dialogue.”

NPR’s audience has risen by 10 million listeners, to 23 million, since 2000, Klose noted.

In May, the senior Democratic congressmen on two House committees that oversee public broadcasting asked the corporation’s inspector general, Kenneth Konz, to investigate allegations that Tomlinson was “making personnel and funding decisions on the basis of political ideology.”

After a meeting with Konz, staff members for U.S. Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and David Obey of Wisconsin said that they expected a report by the inspector general later this month.

Tomlinson, who has praised PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” has lately declined to comment, as aides suggest he is trying to turn down the heat. The fire has been stoked too high for that, analysts say.

Tomlinson, 60, was named to the corporation board by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and was chosen as chairman by President Bush in September 2003.

Tomlinson is also chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other federally-funded outlets that disseminate government-sponsored news and information worldwide.

In an op-ed piece he wrote last month for the conservative-leaning Washington Times, Tomlinson said of Moyers’ show: “Incredibly, when I brought the problem with Now to the attention of PBS President Pat Mitchell, she declared (with a straight face) the program was balanced.”

After Moyers left, Tomlinson said, the show under David Brancaccio “continues in the Moyers liberal advocacy tradition.”

For his part, Moyers has compared Tomlinson to former President Richard Nixon, who tried to slash federal funding for PBS.

“The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party became,” Moyers said in a May 15 speech in St. Louis. “That’s because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth.”


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