MPT now says it traded donor lists with DNC

Controversy: In spots today, president Rob Shuman tells viewers that the pre-1996 exchanges were handled by an outside broker.

August 04, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Maryland Public Television, which had previously denied exchanging its membership lists with political organizations, said yesterday that it had in fact done so twice with the Democratic National Committee.

Rob Shuman, president of MPT, will go on the air today with a statement to supporters explaining the exchanges, which were handled by an outside broker and took place before he joined MPT in October 1996. Shuman's on-air message does not say what political organization received the names of MPT members, but MPT yesterday confirmed that it was the DNC.

The admission puts MPT near the heart of a growing national controversy that seriously threatens federal funding for public television. Some conservative members of Congress are urging an end to all funds for public television in response to the scandal, which started last month when it was revealed that Boston's WGBH had been trading lists with the DNC for five years.

Public television has since acknowledged that between 30 and 50 stations have been involved in such exchanges. The list of public television operations that acknowledge such practices is expected to grow once the results of a survey being done for a congressional oversight subcommittee are known.

Recipients of the lists nationally have also included GOP political organizations, such as the 1996 presidential election committee for Robert Dole.

Jeffrey D. Hankin, vice president for marketing at MPT, explained the about-face yesterday by saying that MPT had only gone back two years in its records when it told The Sun last month that it had traded membership rolls with other nonprofits and had bought such lists from political organizations, but had never sold or traded its lists to any political party, group or committee.

"But, then, we went back farther and found an instance of two exchanges of one of our lists through an outside broker prior to Rob's taking over," Hankin said.

Constance Caplan, chairwoman of the Maryland Public Television Commission, which oversees MPT, said yesterday: "It won't happen again."

Shuman, "away from the station for several days," is not available for comment, Hankin said.

Shuman became president and CEO of MPT in October 1996, replacing Raymond K.K. Ho, who was forced to resign in a battle with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and members Glendening had appointed to the Maryland Public Television Commission. Ho claimed Glendening wanted to "politicize" MPT but was unable to support his accusations.

Hankin said that the two list exchanges took place in "mid-1996" and that the station found no others in searching back to 1990. He also stressed that MPT was unaware of the exchanges at the time, since they were done through an outside broker.

Using such brokers to buy and sell lists is standard practice for public broadcasters, who are relying more and more on direct mail rather than on-air fund-raising. Ervin S. Duggan, president of PBS, estimates that top PBS operations like MPT earn as much as 25 percent of their fund-raising dollars via direct mail these days.

Shuman's address to MPT viewers shows him sitting in the studio, addressing the camera as if delivering an editorial.

"In recent weeks, you've heard about PBS stations exchanging mailing lists with other nonprofits. In some cases, those exchanges have involved political organizations involving one or both major parties," says Shuman.

"Here at MPT, we believed that our list exchanges had not involved any of these groups. However, as we dug into the past, we learned that a few years ago under a previous MPT administration, an outside consultant had, in fact, used our lists in two such exchanges. In both cases, it was done without our consent.

"On learning this, I want to assure you that MPT does not condone or subscribe to these practices. No list exchange or sale to a political group has taken place or will take place under this administration of MPT.

"Thank you for your understanding and your continued participation in our commitment to quality television and healthy communities," he concludes.

The 80-second message will begin airing this afternoon and will run at least until Saturday, when MPT begins a pledge drive.

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