Radio Marti: “Hecka of a Job, Kenny”

The revelation that “at least” ten Florida journalists received money from the U.S. government to participate in programs broadcast on the federally-funded Radio and TV Martí feels like 2004 and 2005 all over again. Back in those days, stories of journalists secretly collecting checks signed by the Bush administration were coming fast and furious.

The radio and television programs broadcast by Marti are beamed into Cuba with the aim of subverting the Castro regime. They are run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal office that runs the U.S. government’s overseas television and radio stations. The BBG in turn is headed by none other than Kenneth Tomlinson, the right-wing Bush appointee who tried to recast the editorial content of the Public Broadcasting Service and Voice of America in the Bush administration’s own conservative image.

A few of Tomlinson’s most egregious attempts to politicize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees PBS, made major headlines not long ago. In 2004, he secretly contracted with a mysterious outside consultant—one who has still never been found—to rate the guests on the liberal program, ”Now With Bill Moyers.” The consultant set up a system under which to rate the program’s guests as ”anti-Bush,” or ”anti-business,” or ”anti-Tom DeLay.”

Tomlinson also donated millions of taxpayer money to finance the far-right program of pure opinion offered by The Wall Street Journal editorial page. When that failed to attract an audience—predictably, as the same show had failed on CNBC not long before—it picked itself up and went over to Fox, together with funds that Tomlinson had so generally doled out.

Tomlinson finally resigned as chairman of the CPB in November 2005 after an internal investigation by the CPB Inspector General, Kenneth Konz, who found that Tomlinson had violated the board’s code of ethics while showing “political favoritism in selecting CPB’s president while he was chairman,” according to The Washington Post. In August 2006, a year-long State Department investigation also accused Tomlinson of using his office and other government resources to support his private stable of thoroughbred racehorses.

As the State Department report noted, Tomlinson also had a hand in appointing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s new president, Patricia de Stacy Harrison. At the time she was described as a “leading Republican donor” by SourceWatch, and as a “a close ally of Tomlinson’s” by The Washington Post, and has given “nearly all” of the $319,250 in political contributions she has made to Republicans, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com and The Washington Times.

Other than President Bush’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, she has also contributed to the campaigns of Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Conrad Burns of Montana. Both are Republicans and sit on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which just so happen to approve all CPB nominations.

The latest Marti scandal joins a rich and well-funded heritage of commentators, journalists, talking heads, and think tank wonks who have proven themselves to be not only “in the tank” as so many journalists are, but also “on the take.” In December 2005, Business Week’s Eamon Javers exposed Doug Bandow, a Cato Institute fellow and syndicated columnist for Copley News Service, who had been pulling in $2,000 per column to write about “topics of interest” to disgraced conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clients.

Javers also revealed that Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the conservative Institute for Policy Innovation, cashed Abramoff’s checks in return for shilling for his clients. Bandow and Ferrara were merely two more players in a saga that goes from Mike Morris to Armstrong Williams to Maggie Gallagher to Mike McManus to Mike Vasilinda—all conservative writers who failed to disclose that they were taking cash from federal agencies in order to write columns and op-ed pieces praising government programs.

The scandal also recalls yet another Bush administration payola scheme, this one exposed back in November 2005, when The Los Angeles Times reported that the American military was secretly paying off Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American soldiers “in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.”

The use of taxpayer dollars to subvert honest American journalism, while deplorable, seems hardly necessary. After all, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, The Weekly Standard, and Rush Limbaugh already broadcast anything and everything the Administration claims to be true, no matter how outlandish. The traditional bulwarks against this kind of thing have been weakened almost beyond recognition, as the work of, say, The New York Times’ Judy Miller or The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward quite neatly illustrates.

So why go to all this trouble to bribe journalists when so many are willing to work for free? Well, no one ever argued that competence was this administration’s strong suit.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters on Monday September 18. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/