Published on Friday, June 24, 2005 by the Boston Globe
$100m Cut Rejected for Public TV, Radio
by Rick Klein
WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives yesterday voted overwhelmingly to keep intact the government's basic funding for public television and radio, turning back an effort by GOP budget-writers to cut $100 million from the broadcasting agency they have accused of pushing a left-leaning political agenda.
The House voted, 284 to 140, to maintain funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private agency that administers money for the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. The House Appropriations Committee had recommended a 25 percent cut to the corporation's basic budget.
The fight over funding is underway as Public Broadcasting has become a target of Republicans who say its programs reflect a viewpoint that is far out of the mainstream, such as a ''Postcards From Buster" episode that featured lesbian couples and their children. Democrats charge that conservatives have been appointed to oversee the agency and decried the announcement yesterday that the new corporation president will be a former cochairwoman of the Republican Party.
Yesterday's vote was a rare defeat for House Republican leaders, with 87 Republicans joining unanimous Democrats to buck House leaders and direct that cuts be found elsewhere in the federal budget. It occurred after a blitz of lobbying by Democrats and individual PBS stations to save funding for the stations that feature shows such as ''Sesame Street" and ''Clifford the Big Red Dog."
''Republicans, keep your hands off of Big Bird," said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat. ''There are very few issues that touch ordinary families as passionately and clearly as public television. People love it."
Republicans argued that in a time of gaping budget deficits, funding for public broadcasting must be trimmed. Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, said that public broadcasting already receives 85 percent of its funding from the private sector, and should be weaned further from public dollars.
''It's reasonable and responsible, and precisely what the American people elect a Republican majority to do," said Pence, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members. ''Put our fiscal house in order."
Some congressional observers said the funding for public broadcasting was probably never in serious jeopardy; Senate leaders have shown little appetite for the cut, and the move in the House was viewed mostly as a political statement.
Still, with yesterday's House vote, the public broadcasting industry appears to have survived its biggest scare in a decade. Officials said a $100 million cut in funds that go directly to stations would have curtailed spending for producing programs, and could have forced smaller stations, particularly those in less populated areas, to close.
At Boston-based WGBH-TV, the cut would have meant a $2 million reduction -- 5 percent -- in the station's $40 million local operations budget, a trim that almost certainly would have affected locally produced programs featured on channels 2 and 44, said Jeanne Hopkins, a WGBH spokeswoman.
To compensate for the cut, WGBH would have had to add some 40,000 basic $50-a-year members to its current 200,000, a task Hopkins said would have been virtually impossible. The station and others around the nation had urged viewers and website visitors to call representatives and push for a restoration of funding, and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org delivered more than 1 million online petitions to members of Congress.
The House bill still would cut more than $100 million from public broadcasting funding through other accounts, but that money is not considered as vital to PBS and NPR stations. The cuts that remain in the measure include $23.4 million earmarked for ''Ready to Learn" programs such as ''Reading Rainbow"; $39 million for stations to convert to digital broadcast systems; and $40 million to upgrade satellite systems. Hopkins said stations' lobbying will now turn to the Senate, where they will seek to have that money put back in the budget.
Though Republicans discussed the issue mostly as a budgetary matter, the debate had political overtones from the start. The corporation's current chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, a Republican, has repeatedly criticized PBS public-affairs programming as too liberal.
Yesterday, Patricia S. Harrison, a former cochairwoman of the Republican Party, was named the corporation's president and chief executive. Harrison previously served as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs under President Bush, and Democrats said they feared she would bring her politics to the new job.
Yesterday, some Republicans sought to portray PBS and NPR as bastions of a liberal establishment. Representative Ginny Brown-Waite, Republican of Florida, said on the House floor that the average NPR listener makes about $75,000 a year, and accused the corporation of seeking to hide vast sums of money in marketing income connected to its famous characters.
''Big Bird is a billionaire," Brown-Waite said. ''Americans should be shocked. This is the height of absurdity -- a massive corporation shielding its profits so it can continue to feed at the government trough."
Representative Ralph Regula, Republican of Ohio, said that after 38 years in existence, it is time for public broadcasting to begin to stand on its own.
He said the explosion in cable outlets makes it likely that children's programming would survive without government support.
''My grandchildren love Elmo, Big Bird, 'Between the Lions.' I like a number of the programs," said Regula, the chairman of the subcommittee that recommended the cut. ''But keep in mind, this was created in a time -- some 30-plus years ago -- . . . when we didn't have the huge amount of choices we have today."
According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, all outside funds that come into the not-for-profit agency are pumped into production and programming.
Democrats leaned heavily on the popularity of that programming in making their case for full funding for public broadcasting.
''Big Bird can't be replaced by 500 channels of cable," said Representative Louise Slaughter, Democrat of New York.
It was an argument that persuaded Republicans as well as Democrats.
''It's important to have nonviolent, noncommercial programming," said Representative Timothy F. Murphy, Republican of Pennsylvania.
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