Backers of PBS descend on D.C.

`It's time to fight' over funding

June 22, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

WASHINGTON - From partisan rallies on Capitol Hill featuring PBS kids' TV characters like Clifford the Big Red Dog to an army of station managers from around the country trooping through the halls of Congress to lobby their representatives, the culture war over public broadcasting broke out all over D.C. yesterday.

The catalyst for yesterday's actions was a move late last week by the House Appropriations Committee to cut $100 million out of the proposed $400 million PBS budget for the fiscal year 2006 that starts in October. The bill would cut an additional $23 million for Ready to Learn, which funds such children's programs as Sesame Street, Between the Lions and Clifford.

The public lobbying effort comes amid accusations of liberal bias from some Republican politicians - and Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is supposed to be the ally of PBS. The battle lines are being drawn between conservatives and liberals.

"We came here today to save kids' TV," Peggy Charren, a board member of WGBH in Boston, said yesterday after a rally outside the Cannon Office Building that featured Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat; Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat; and Clifford. "This has been a very partisan fight for a while with Kenneth Tomlinson ... trying to impose a conservative agenda on PBS. But, now with Republicans in Congress trying to kill children's TV, it's too much. ... It's time to fight," Charren said.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was set up in 1969 to be a conduit of funds from Congress to PBS and National Public Radio. In that role, it was intended to serve as a political heat shield between public broadcasters and the politicians who vote on their funding.

But critics, like Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, say that Tomlinson has tried to revamp the agency's role since taking over in September 2003. On Monday, Lautenberg sent Tomlinson a letter calling on him to resign: "Your conduct has undermined the CPB and its mission of quality public broadcasting free of political interference."

Tomlinson made headlines in April when he acknowledged hiring an outside consultant to monitor the PBS newsmagazine Now With Bill Moyers for liberal bias. Based on the consultant's review, Tomlinson charged that Moyers, who resigned from the show in December, had not met the standards of "fairness and balance" that CPB is required by its mandate to ensure.

The headlines turned to a firestorm of criticism later in the month when Tomlinson forced the resignation of CPB President Kathleen Cox, while recommending Patricia Harrison, former co-chair of the GOP, as Cox's replacement. Tomlinson also added two ombudsmen to CPB to evaluate programs for fairness and balance.

Tomlinson is currently under investigation by the inspector general of CPB on several fronts relating to those actions. They range from hiring a consultant to monitor Moyers without board approval to e-mails from Tomlinson that suggest he was working in league with the Bush White House in removing Cox and championing Harrison - something he has denied.

Jeff Chester, director of the Project for Digital Democracy, a media-watchdog agency in Washington, termed Tomlinson's actions an attempted "conservative coup of CPB and public broadcasting."

But the "coup" appeared to have hit a bump in the road yesterday when the CPB board held a public meeting here and failed to name Harrison president - as some had expected. Tomlinson declined comment after the 90-minute meeting: "We made a pact not to discuss it in any way, and I can't break the pact," he said, quickly exiting the boardroom.

Board member Frank H. Cruz said in a Sun interview after the meeting: "We interviewed four or five people for the job. The process is still going on."

A series of resolutions passed yesterday by the board suggest some members want Tomlinson to slow down. Tomlinson himself seemed to be sounding notes of reconciliation toward PBS as he pledged to fight to get Congress to restore the money to PBS that would be lost if the cuts voted by the House Appropriation Committee pass the full House and Senate.

Those were welcome words to broadcasters like Robert Shuman, president and CEO of Maryland Public Television, who attended the CPB meeting and lobbied members of the Maryland delegation yesterday to restore what he estimated could be closer to $200 million when all is said and done. By his estimate, MPT would lose at least $650,000 in federal money next year.

"We came here today to show and express the value public television has for the citizens of Maryland," said Shuman, who heads a committee of the public broadcasters in the nation's 30 largest television markets. That includes such PBS giants as WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York and WETA in Washington.

Comparing yesterday's rallies to Big Bird's appearance on the floor of Congress when Newt Gingrich tried to "zero out" funding for PBS in 1995, Shuman said, "At least that action by Newt Gingrich was clearly stated, and we had time to react. The compressed time frame of the Appropriation Committee's action last week is very troubling. It happened so quickly."

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