PBS stations sold lists of donors

Official tells Congress political organizations were among buyers

July 21, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The practice by public broadcasting stations of selling the names of their contributors to political organizations is widespread, according to testimony yesterday before a congressional subcommittee.

Robert T. Coonrod, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said 30 of 75 Public Broadcasting Service stations in the nation's largest markets, "appear to have exchanged names with political organizations" -- buying or selling their lists to such groups as the Democratic National Committee.

At least 53 of the 75 PBS stations also exchanged their lists with nonprofit groups not connected with political parties.

Much of this buying and selling is done through third-party brokers, Coonrod said. The lists are used by stations to raise funds in direct-mail campaigns.

Maryland Public Television told The Sun yesterday that while it has sold names to nonprofit groups and bought membership rolls from political groups, it has not sold the names of its members to any partisan political group.

"We do not exchange our lists with any political organization, but we have done so with nonprofits. ... And there may have been times when we purchased lists from political groups," said Jeff Hankin, vice president of marketing at MPT.

Hankin declined to name the political or nonprofit groups with which MPT has done business.

Ervin S. Duggan, president of PBS, promised members of a House Commerce subcommittee that he would try to put a stop to the practice of list swapping.

"We will strongly urge our member stations to establish policies strictly prohibiting the exchange or rental of lists to partisan political groups, committees or organizations," Duggan said yesterday.

He said many stations have such policies, but they need to implement "better auditing and enforcement mechanisms."

Which political and nonprofit organizations the stations deal with is important because two of the nation's biggest PBS stations, WGBH in Boston and WETA in Washington, have acknowledged exchanging membership lists with the DNC.

That has led to renewed charges by some Republican members of Congress that public television promotes the goals of the Democratic Party at taxpayer expense.

In 1994, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich urged Congress to "zero out" funding for public television, calling it a "bastion of liberalism." His campaign failed to end funding, but it led to cutbacks that have pushed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS in the direction of commercialization, if not privatization.

CPB is the institution that receives the federal funds, which it then allocates to various arms of PBS, which the public is more familiar with as the face of public television in the United States.

Because it is a private, nonprofit entity that is considered a charity for tax purposes, CPB is barred from direct or indirect involvement in political campaigns. The primary reason for the hearings that started yesterday is to determine whether public broadcasters violated federal law by providing their lists to political groups.

Other implications and consequences for PBS connected with the controversy and the hearings also exist.

This summer, after five years of penny-pinching allocations, the House Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee was prepared to reverse the trend and recommend a healthy increase in funding for PBS.

The proposal, which was written by the subcomittee's chairman, Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, would have increased funding from $250 million this year to $300 million next year. The bill carried language that would have guaranteed substantial annual increases through 2006, when the allocation would reach $475 million.

Tauzin's bill also recommended an immediate grant of an extra $15 million to help public broadcasters pay for their transition to digital technology.

But just as Tauzin's subcommittee was to vote on the bill, the actions of WGBH came to light and the vote was postponed.

"Billy stuck his neck out for public broadcasting, and this is how he gets repaid," Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said last week.

Meanwhile, WNET in New York has said that "some partisan political organizations have benefited" from its mailing lists but declined to name them.

In the case of WGBH, the practice has gone on for five years, although it first tried to portray the trade as a one-time "administrative error."

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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