Public air wars

Robert Novak

7/21/2005 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

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.

 One-time payments to Darling and Mann were minimal compared with public broadcasting's permanent payments to big-time lobbyists. Respected Republican lobbyist Charlie Black's firm has represented PBS for four years, now receiving $180,000 a year. The account had been handled by Karen Nussle, wife of Republican Rep. Jim Nussle, the House Budget Committee chairman. (Mrs. Nussle left the firm earlier this year as her husband began his campaign for governor of Iowa.)

 Lobbyist Domenic Ruscio, a former Carter administration official, for many years has represented APTS (receiving $60,000 a year). He has been trying to pack the nine-member CPB with four from the public television community that the board presumably is overseeing.

 Ruscio's wife, Bettilou Taylor, arranged the Specter subcommittee hearing on short notice for July 1, with Tomlinson the only CPB member invited. When it was learned Tomlinson would be in Afghanistan that day (as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors), Taylor changed the meeting date to July 11. Thus, the first hearing in memory covering public broadcasting appropriations was really an attempted ambush of Tomlinson.

 The first question passed by Taylor to Specter, which he then read out: "Mr. Tomlinson, The New York Times has reported a couple of payments, one for a lobbyist, $10,000 into the insights of a specific senator. Is that true?" There was no disclosure of the subcommittee staff director's relationship to public broadcasting's lobbyist.

 Specter was indistinguishable from Democrats in the course of the hearing, scolding Tomlinson for paying Darling $10,000 "on a very tight budget" and questioning "the propriety of the expenditures." Tomlinson received no support at the hearing. A massive propaganda and lobbying effort resulted in a 284 to 140 vote June 23 in the Republican-controlled House to restore a cut in public broadcasting funds. That has been the monolith faced by Ken Tomlinson, during his term-limited chairmanship ending in mid-September.