Politics & Policy

Block That Bias!

A snapshot of liberal optometry.

CORRECTION: Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson never worked as an intern for Fulton Lewis Jr. At age 16, he was an intern at Human Events, the conservative Capitol Hill weekly. He later interned at the Richmond News Leader. His last two years in college, he worked as a full-time reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Apologies for the error.–Ed.

The charge by Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is that the public television and radio stations are for the most part liberal, and that an effort should be made to ventilate news in a better-rounded perspective.

The charge has brought responses from which a great deal is learned about the popular culture.

The easiest reply is: It ain’t so.

That is what one mostly hears: that the news, as given and as analyzed by public radio and television, is in fact balanced.

The problem here is that equilibrium is lost after prolonged exposure to a cultural Zeitgeist. One thinks of a musical scale. The diatonic scale is implanted in our ears such that a variation from it hits us as disharmony, as the 12-tone music of Schoenberg did, and continues to do to the ear brought up on the conventional scale. But what once was controversial can settle in as orthodox, even as six hundred years ago the proposition that the earth was other than flat went from preposterous to orthodox in about a hundred years.

In modern politics, things that were said about Martin Luther King Jr. before 1968 are wrenching today. The world has closed down on any view of Dr. King that stops this side of hagiolatry. That’s true also, in reverse, of Joe McCarthy. A sentence to the effect that he was other than evil jolts the mind. A paragraph, let alone a book, challenging the settled portrait of him meets either with silence — on the order of a book that holds that the earth is flat — or with instant derision.

It is so with public radio, much of the time. There are accepted postulates in modern discussion. These are, however guarded their exposition, that the Democratic Party is about idealism, the Republican Party about capitalism. It is a pretty long list. There are those who believe in free expression, and those who believe in censorship. It is a planted axiom of our democracy that there should be a formal and bristling separation of church and state. Those who believe otherwise are thought unreliable beneficiaries of American history, or else creeping, and creepy, evangelists.

So it goes.

The prejudices sweep away antecedent history. Ken Tomlinson, the chairman of the CPB, was editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest. What would you expect to get from him, if not a reactionary prism on world affairs?

Get it?

Well, Salon.com gets it right away. The Salon people improve on it. They discover that Tomlinson was an intern for the late Fulton Lewis Jr. Who was Lewis? He was “a reactionary radio personality associated with Sen. Joe McCarthy.” Need one say more?

No, not really. But let’s say more because it tastes real good. “In a 1996 interview, poet Allen Ginsberg recalled how Lewis in the ’50s held special disdain for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage for the Soviets and executed. ‘There was one commentator on the air, called Fulton Lewis, who said that they smelt bad and therefore should die. There was an element of anti-Semitism in it,’ Ginsberg said.”

So in no time at all, Tomlinson is taken from head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting back to editor of the reactionary Reader’s Digest, back to intern for Fulton Lewis, who disdained the Rosenbergs and struck the poet Ginsberg as anti-Semitic in his expression of that disdain.

Tomlinson (along with his charges of bias in public broadcasting) is near dead by now, but hang in there for a moment. An associate of Tomlinson’s at CPB in Washington is William Schulz.

William Schulz!

Yes, William Schulz.

Schulz also worked for Fulton Lewis! “In a 1997 interview, Schulz recalled, ‘I went to Antioch College in Ohio, and they had a work-study program, and I got a couple of newspaper jobs, and then I worked for Human Events. Then I went to work for Fulton Lewis Jr., who was a radio commentator and columnist.’

“Both Tomlinson and Schulz declined to comment for this article.”

The writer of this Salon essay is Eric Boehlert. His summary of the whole question raised by Tomlinson: “To some, the idea that these two are in charge of promoting objective journalism in public broadcasting is appalling. ‘It’s shocking and disgraceful,’ says former New York Times columnist and reporter Anthony Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage during the McCarthy era. ‘If both men wrote for Fulton Lewis it means they were dedicated to an extreme-right position that should disqualify them from determining somebody’s objectivity.’”

This is a snapshot of liberal optometry. All you need to establish in order to reject the charge of current bias in public broadcasting is the background, forty years ago, of the men who make that charge. If, forty years ago, they had worked for a Communist apologist, bringing that subject up would be — McCarthyite.

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