Conservative Senators seek to tie up PBS financing

March 06, 1992|By Martin Tolchin | Martin Tolchin,New York Times

WASHINGTON -- A bill to provide financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has collided with conservative Senate Republicans, who say public television stations display a consistent liberal bias in their choice of programs.

The conservatives have threatened to prepare a flurry of amendments that they say would achieve "balance in programming."

Wednesday, faced with the introduction of those amendments, the Senate Democratic leadership pulled the bill from the Senate floor. Debate on the measure could resume as early as next week.

The effort by conservative lawmakers coincides with criticism of President Bush by Patrick J. Buchanan, his challenger in the Republican presidential primaries, over a documentary about gay life that had federal financial support and was shown on many public television stations.

At issue is whether Congress should continue to assure the editorial independence of public broadcasting and provide funds with no strings attached.

This issue, and the larger question of whether government should have a say in the content of artistic or creative work it helps finance, has become more volatile in this election year.

Throughout its 25-year history, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has succeeded in fending off threatened government restrictions.

Created during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, the corporation was first accused of a liberal tilt by the Nixon White House. The corporation does not broadcast or produce programs, but rather acts as a conduit for federal funds to public radio and television stations and networks.

The corporation receives virtually all its money from the federal budget, but individual public broadcasting stations receive only about 17 percent of their funds from the corporation, public broadcasting officials say.

The Senate critics are probably not numerous enough to jeopardize the corporation's financing or significantly change its operations.

But the amendments being threatened Wednesday appeared to be so cumbersome, including an effort to attach an unrelated anti-crime bill as an amendment, that the bill's backers chose to retreat temporarily.

Other amendments being discussed Wednesday would have required public disclosure of salaries paid to the corporation's executives and some performers who appear on public broadcasting programs, and would have strengthened congressional controls over public broadcasting by providing annual financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which now receives a three-year allotment.

The current Senate bill would provide $1 billion for 1994 to 1996 for the corporation, a slight increase over the current three-year period.

The corporation was deliberately set up as an independent, non-governmental body.

"We're the heat shield between the Congress and the public broadcasting system," Donald E. Ledwig, the corporation's president, said in a telephone interview. "The heat shield is the hottest place to sit."

The Republicans have provided all the heat so far. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas asked the Senate on Tuesday, "Can anyone stand on this floor and claim that public broadcasting is not liberal?"

He said, "When PBS announced its coverage of the 1992 presidential elections would be handled by Bill Moyers -- that great non-partisan Democrat -- and William Greider, two excellent journalists who also happen to be two excellent liberal Democrats, I knew the fix was in."

Mr. Ledwig, asked if public broadcasting had a liberal tilt, said, "That's in the eye of the beholder."

David J. Brugger, president of the Association of America's Public Television Stations, said, "We have studies that say that 79 percent of the American people think that we are neither liberal nor conservative."

Asked about Mr. Moyers and Mr. Greider, he said, "I obviously don't think it's a liberal combination. If you look at all the programming that we have, and all the people who express their views on public broadcasting, I don't think the charge holds water."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., assailed a PBS television program called "Maria's Story," which he described as "a program glorifying the life of an FMLN guerrilla in El Salvador.

"It painted her and the communist guerrillas in El Salvador in the most heroic of depictions," Mr. McCain said.

When Senate supporters of public broadcasting pointed to the success of children's programs like "Sesame Street," Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said, "I do not know of anybody who wanted to kill Big Bird," who was "balanced as far as I could see him."

Instead, he said, "We are talking about some of these commentators and some of these people who pick the issues and the spin that is put on these issues."

Mr. Helms cited a program, "Tongues Untied," which he said "blatantly promoted homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." He said that the program included "homosexual men dancing around naked."

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