WASHINGTON -- Sen. Arlen Specter, a busy man with multiple duties, was understandably unprepared July 11 as he chaired a rare Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing about public television. When he asked whether there was an opening statement for him to read, the subcommittee staff director replied there was none but handed him questions. Therein lies a behind-the-scenes story about public air wars in Washington.
The hearing's purpose was to grill Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) board chairman, about hiring two consultants in his campaign against liberal bias on the airwaves. Not only Specter's questions but the hearing itself was orchestrated by subcommittee staff director Bettilou Taylor, whose husband, Domenic Ruscio, is a longtime consultant hired by the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS).
"There's no conflict here," an angry Taylor told this column, contending "everyone" knows she is married to Ruscio. "Everyone" means the principals in public television, but it is news to the outside world. The constricted world of public television includes surprising relationships exposed by Tomlinson's unwelcome effort to add some conservative programming to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Tomlinson's conservative Republican credentials are well known. He headed the government's Voice of America in the Reagan administration and was editor-in-chief at Reader's Digest (where I was a contributing editor) in 1989-1996. President Bill Clinton in 2000 named Tomlinson as a Republican member of the essentially powerless CPB. When he was unanimously elected CPB chairman in 2003, Tomlinson tried to reduce the ideological imbalance in public broadcasting.
The wrath of the liberal movement came down hard on Tomlinson for daring to challenge a liberal preserve. The attack centered on CPB using two consultants at Tomlinson's recommendation. Republican lobbyist Ron Darling was hired for two months at $10,000 to line up Republican Sen. Conrad Burns against packing the CPB with public broadcasting executives. Fred Mann, formerly of the conservative National Journalism Center, was paid $15,000 to study liberal bias in Bill Moyers' "NOW" and other programs.
Mann's study was followed by PBS reluctantly agreeing to "Wall Street Journal Editorial Report" as a conservative antidote to the just departed Moyers (his program continues in a liberal vein without him). "NOW" enjoys much better coverage on public television, with the Wall Street Journal program often relegated to 4 a.m.