- - Thursday, May 8, 2014

In 1960, 16-year old Kenneth Tomlinson boarded a Trailways bus in the southwestern Virginia mountain town of Galax. The following morning, he got off the bus in Washington, D.C., and began a journey that would take him from a summer internship to journalistic and governmental heights that he could not have imagined.

Along the way he would be ambushed by a legion of congressional, bureaucratic and journalistic hit men who saw him, correctly, as a fierce opponent of the ruling establishment.

I met Ken that first week in Washington. I was five years older, ghostwriting a nationally syndicated column, and began a lifelong friendship that would end only with his death last week.

Ken worked his way through Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College as an award-winning reporter for the nearby Richmond Times-Dispatch. By then, I had joined the Washington bureau of Reader’s Digest and a few years later, at my recommendation, Ken was hired by the world’s largest magazine to join a bureau of journalistic heavyweights.

As he had in Richmond, Ken showed himself to be a tenacious reporter and gifted wordsmith. He authored one expose after another, covered wars in Vietnam and in Africa and co-authored the definitive book on America’s POWs.

For Ken, life could not have been better. He had married the lovely Rebecca Moore and was the proud father of two little boys. He was summoned to the Digest’s Pleasantville, N.Y, headquarters and was made the magazine’s youngest editor of entire issues.

The Tomlinsons’ idyllic life in Westchester County ended, at least temporarily, in 1982, when President Reagan asked Ken to return to Washington and head the Voice of America (VOA). He was the agency’s third director in a year and sweeping reforms were necessary for an agency that Reagan wanted to play a key role in the Cold War. Two years later, when Ken returned to the Digest, he did so to highly favorable reviews. The National Journal reported that he had brought to VOA a spirit of professionalism that fostered real programming change.

Back at the Digest, Ken moved quickly up the masthead. Managing editor upon his return, executive editor in 1985, editor-in-chief in 1989. In that position he encouraged news-making reportage and reaffirmed the Digest fundamentals first established by legendary founder DeWitt Wallace. Seven years after taking the helm, financially secure, he retired to a horse farm in the Middleburg, Va., countryside. The very first horse he bred was a stakes winner.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would change Ken’s life once more. Aware of Ken’s success at VOA, President George W. Bush asked him to chair not one but two presidential boards — the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls both the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.

At the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Ken instituted major reforms. He expanded the agency’s radio and TV programming for Afghanistan, Iran and Cuba. He oversaw the launch of the Arabic-language Alhurra TV. Observing the station’s 10th anniversary earlier this year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ current board noted that Alhurra is “the only Arabic-language channel that covers topics not regularly addressed in the region’s media, including human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”

At the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Ken sought to bring a semblance of balance to public radio and TV programming. To counter what he called the “preposterously left-wing” Bill Moyers show “NOW,” Ken fought for, and won, approval for a weekly right-of-center show revolving around the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

Reaction to his campaign for balance was swift. On May 2, 2005, The New York Times ran a Page 1, above-the-fold story by Stephen Lobaton headlined “Chairman Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Bias: Cites Need for Balance.” Within days, two powerful House Democrats, Reps. David Obey of Wisconsin and John D. Dingell of Michigan, formally demanded — and received — initiation of an inspector’s general investigation that would lead to a flood of leaked emails and incendiary quotes from anonymous “officials who feared retribution.”

In the end, Ken was found to have violated no laws, but his ordeal was not over. The Times’ Mr. Lobaton reported that Ken was now under “criminal investigation” by the State Department’s inspector general for “accusations of misuse of federal money through the creation of phantom or unqualified employees” under his control.

A breathless Mr. Lobaton later reported in another Page 1 Times dispatch that investigators had found that Ken ran a “horse-racing operation from his BBG office.” Ken’s lawyers, paid for out of his own pocket, determined that he had sent an average of one email a day from his office regarding his racing stable.

As in the CPB “investigation,” nothing illegal was found. “Phantom employees,” “improperly putting a friend on the payroll,” “running a horse-racing operation from his office,” all turned out to be charges without merit. Ken was left to pay six-figure legal bills and wonder — as did former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan after he was acquitted of corruption charges — “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

In retirement, Ken continued to run his small-scale racing stable, mentor young conservative journalists, and write for The Weekly Standard. Perhaps Ed Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation, said it best:

“Ken was a hero to so many of us — in his career at the Reader’s Digest and over the Reagan era. He helped bring down the Evil Empire.”

William Schulz was executive editor of Reader’s Digest and its Washington bureau chief for 30 years.

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