Regarding Tomlinson

The remedies: Reform ideas from all sides

By Steve Behrens

What could Congress, CPB or anyone do to prevent the conflicts, failed decisions and other embarrassments bubbling out of the Tomlinson affair?

Perhaps the central problem is that the Public Broadcasting Act tells CPB, run by well-connected political appointees, to protect public broadcasting from political influence while also fostering objectivity and balance on the air.

While CPB’s inspector general and many others criticize former CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson for violating the first mandate, he and his supporters at the Wall Street Journal still say he was only doing his duty under the other.

Though APTS proposes several reforms at CPB, eliminating this central conflict of interest is not one of them.

“It’s a fragile compromise that goes back 40 years,” says APTS President John Lawson. “We want to attract bipartisan support” with the reform proposals, he explains. “Opening up that language would be opening a can of worms.”

The mandates addressing political balance, and other matters important to Congress, provide accountability, which politicians insist upon.

Since IG Kenneth Konz filed his report last week, revealing more about Tomlinson’s secretive crusade, insiders (including Konz and the board itself) and outsiders alike are proposing reforms in response. A trio of activist groups — Free Press, Jeff Chester’s Center for Digital Democracy and Common Cause jointly made recommendations.

APTS announced reform proposals [PDF] just before Konz’s report came out. (To get the nuances right: the proposals came from APTS Action Inc., an alter ego of APTS that operates under fewer federal lobbying restrictions. The board resolution went to APTS member stations for official endorsement.)

Some of the ideas:

 Board membership changes. APTS proposed a significant structural change at CPB—its second recent suggestion for changing the board appointment process or criteria. In 2004, APTS tried in vain to get Congress to double the number of White House-appointed board members—from two to four—who represent TV or radio stations.

Now APTS proposes expanding the board from nine to 13 members, and five ex officio but voting members who are major figures in federal cultural agencies—the heads of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation and the chairs of the arts and humanities endowments. The objective is to “enhance the professionalism of the board,” the APTS resolution said Oct. 29.

In addition to adding the five cultural officials to the board, the board would have eight White House appointees instead of the current nine and no more than four could hail from the same party (the maximum now is five). Also, at least four of the eight would represent stations — two TV and two radio (up from the current total of two), nominated after the White House consults with pubcasters.

 Separation of politics from programming. The three activist groups take a shot at the conflicting mandates to CPB. They would have professional programmers, not political appointees, make all CPB program decisions, including those about balance.

The board itself once believed in that separation. It decreed a formal separation of function in the organization’s structure in the 1980s. The director of the CPB Television Program Fund made program decisions and the board stayed out of them.

 Open CPB Board meetings. Konz said the board should ensure that “deliberations leading to board actions are always held in public meetings” so that the public can follow decision-making.

APTS and the activist trio spoke up for open CPB Board meetings. Until conflicts over the Tomlinson affair split the board, it typically discussed and arranged all or nearly all of its decisions privately, the day before its public board meetings. “Although current law requires open CPB Board meetings, the statutory exceptions to the law apparently have been interpreted by CPB to allow closed meetings not requiring confidentiality in the normal sense of the word,” the APTS resolution remarked. The activist trio adds the idea of televising the meetings.

 Bipartisan leadership. APTS and the media watchdog groups propose requiring the CPB Board to elect its chair and vice chair from different parties, a common informal practice in the past. Both are now Republicans. [Republican majority board members stuck to their own party Sept. 26 when they elected Cheryl Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines as chair and vice chair.]

 Consultation with stations. APTS seeks more specific rules requiring CPB to consult public TV and radio stations when it formulates policies.

 No political consultants. Unhappy with Tomlinson’s secret hiring of consultants for his campaign to change the balance of PBS programming, the activist trio would prohibit CPB from hiring outside political lobbyists and consultants.

 Other procedural reforms. Konz’s report recommended reforms [text of chapter] including more than two dozen changes including procedural safeguards. The board should take steps to “change the culture of CPB,” emphasizing the importance of enforcing internal controls and behaving ethically, he said. It must also adopt practices to prevent political tests in personnel decisions.

The CPB Board picked up on several reform proposals the day the report came out, Nov. 15.

“We must correct the errors that allowed any violations of governance policy to occur,” Chairman Cheryl Halpern said. She said CPB suffers “longstanding systemic weaknesses” in its policies and practices.

The board assigned a new Corporate Governance Committee, headed by former Vice Chairman Frank Cruz, a Democrat, to consider clearer definitions of management and board roles, as Konz recommended, and measures to increase transparency of its decision-making.

The board also created an Executive Compensation Committee, as recommended by Konz. “We will regularize the process of hiring senior staff, as well as the process of setting appropriate compensation,” the board said in a statement.

Back in July, a coalition of 10 mostly liberal groups urged that no CPB contract be awarded by a board member without approval of the full board and immediate public notice.

Konz said CPB needs processes for the board to investigate and discipline its members for violations of the bylaws and CPB’s code of ethics. He recommended that it develop an ongoing risk management procedure like those required in corporations by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Officials would have to justify sole-source consulting contracts, documenting their expertise and costs and reporting regularly to the board’s Audit and Finance Committee, Konz suggests. When officials okay payment of a bill, they must sign them rather than letting a staff member approve it with “Signature on File” stamp.

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