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The PBS-FEMA Connection

Russ Baker

September 12, 2006

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to He is also the founder of the Real News Project , a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at

Are you staying abreast of developments on the cuckoo crony circuit?

The latest involves our good friend Ken Tomlinson, brought into the federal government to rid public broadcasting of bias in favor of the downtrodden, the poor and the voiceless.

Ken apparently was an excellent choice. We now learn of a new inquiry into Ken’s baronial lifestyle at the public trough. Investigators say that while heading the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the outfit that oversees U.S. foreign broadcasting, including the Voice of America, Tomlinson ran a ''horse racing operation.'' He seems to have been using his office to oversee a stable of horses he named after Afghan leaders who fought the Taliban and the Russians—yet another example of someone who believes that heroism may be appropriated to confer honor on one’s own dubious doings. 

Tomlinson’s misdeeds weren’t limited to the sexy sport of horseracing. He also indulged in good ol' fashioned cronyism, such as improperly putting a friend on the payroll, repeatedly tasking government employees to run personal errands, and overbilling his hours to the government.

If you missed Tomlinson’s spaghetti western, don’t feel bad: Deluged with outrages, scandals and tragicomedies, the media must have felt compelled to only push stories of political corruption when the guilty party is in Congress or the White House. Corruption further down the food chain doesn’t merit their attention, being so common it's akin to “dog bites man” headlines.

As a result, the public neither knows about most incidents nor understands how they are part of a larger pattern of cronyism, self-dealing and flat-out madness in this administration. My personal favorite, as regular readers will know, is the FEMA director Michael Brown. A year after Katrina, the full story of his personal history as a small-time ne’er-do-well up until he came to Washington has still never been shared with the American people. The only thing most people know about Brown is that, like Tomlinson, he spent a lot of time worrying about horses. With the anniversary of the Katrina cataclysm, Brown has been all over the tube, posing as an “expert,” with nary a question about what a man with no credentials and no experience was doing overseeing disaster relief nationwide in the first place.

Then there is Bush’s former domestic policy adviser. That sounds like an important job. Yet when Claude Allen was busted for an ongoing shoplifting scheme, the White House put out the word that the African-American had really just been a token figure, not actually doing anything important. Perhaps that explains why Allen, who was earning $160,000 of taxpayers’ money annually, had so much time to fraudulently return for cash $5,000 worth of items he had never purchased. After 18 months of probation, Allen’s record will be expunged—thanks to a kindly judge.

There’s David Safavian, the former head of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy. An ex-lobbyist and Hill staffer with no prior experience in government contracting and an old friend of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he was hauled out of the White House in handcuffs and recently convicted of obstructing justice and lying about his ties to Abramoff. And how much do we know about what Safavian actually did in the course of his job, why he was appointed in the first place, and what his relationship with Abramoff could tell us about decision-making at the highest levels? Nearly bupkis .

Meanwhile, back at the Tomlinson ranch, we should have plenty of questions. Tomlinson, a good friend of Karl Rove (quite a recommendation in itself) was hired to supervise broadcasting following a career spent almost entirely working his way to the helm at the politically conservative magazine Readers’ Digest. Fascinatingly, Tomlinson was a Vietnam correspondent for the Digest, a concept in itself a little hard to swallow.

Tomlinson resigned from the Digest in 1996 to work on the presidential campaign of Steve Forbes, whose philosophy centered on the inherent pride in inheriting wealth.

His eventual rise to U.S. broadcasting czar was undoubtedly smoothed back in 1995 when PBS foolishly agreed to accept $75 million in Readers' Digest-developed programming, part of a desperate effort by the network to replace dwindling federal contributions.

Even before the horse business reared its head, Tomlinson had been forced to resign (in November 2005) from his other, more visible job, overseeing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, home of "Sesame Street," NOVA, "Frontline," "All Things Considered" and their ilk. Upon his arrival at CPB, Tomlinson had set himself on a campaign to uncover enemies of the state at the Public Broadcasting System, and soon focused on Bill Moyers and his program “Now with Bill Moyers.”

An internal investigation by CPB’s inspector general into his crusade to root out latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, Teletubbies-loving liberals at PBS charged that he had hired a crony to improperly “investigate” Moyers’ program, plus other radio and TV programs, for “bias.” In doing so, Tomlinson had violated rules designed to protect the independence of public broadcasting programming. He also put inappropriate pressure on programmers creating new shows, and improperly applied political tests when considering top executive hires.

Tomlinson’s inquiry into alleged bias at the Moyers program included commissioning a $14,170 study that subjectively classified guests as "liberal" or "conservative" and gave segments labels like “anti-Bush," "anti-DeLay," and "anti-corporation." Meanwhile, he raised $5 million to air "The Journal Editorial Report," a program with unfailingly pro-Bush, pro-DeLay, pro-corporation Wall Street Journal editorial board figures. (Earlier this year, with few PBS stations opting to air the "Report," it jumped to—quelle surprise —the Fox News Channel.)

Tomlinson has yet to resign from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the government says it will not be pressing charges. It’s safe to say that if his shenanigans at the OK Corral get further attention, Tomlinson will be allowed at some point to quietly resign to “spend more time with his family.” 

Then he can join Michael Brown—and David Safavian and Claude Allen (when they get out of jail or off probation)—along with countless other temporary so-called “public servants” in think tanks and plush offices around the corporate world. Then all the self-righteous, anti-government ideologues can say: “See, we told you so: government doesn’t work,” while they shut down more federal programs and “outsource” more business to their friends and cronies. And Fox’s Rupert Murdoch can pick up a more red state version of Teletubbies called Beerbellies and add it to the roster along with “Then with Sean Hannity,” and Clear Channel can do a “fair and balanced” makeover of NOVA, which will feature programs about the flaws in the theory of evolution.  

As the legendary and straight-talking CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite liked to say back in the pre-Katie Couric era: And that’s the way it is. 



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