The CPB Board this month rejected President Richard Carlson's plan to hire a political ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich for advice on privatizing public broadcasting.
Gingrich blasted CPB last week for not developing privatization plans and attacked the board for thwarting the hiring of former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
Gingrich said at a private luncheon with Republican staffers Feb. 16 that Weber "was fired because he strongly advised them to explore their private-sector options," according to the Washington Post.
The board rejected a $250,000 contract with the consulting firm of Clark and Weinstock, which would have included the services of Weber, a new partner in the firm.
CPB management negotiated the contract and presented it to the board during an executive session last month, setting off a dispute that sharply divided the board. Some board members objected that the deal appeared to include Weber's lobbying services.
Weber himself fostered this perception when he joined the meeting, according to a CPB source. The first words out of his mouth as he sat down at the conference table were, "I had dinner with the speaker last night," the source said.
The corporation is specifically barred from engaging in lobbying, and congressional leaders have blasted public broadcasting stations for mobilizing grassroots support for continued federal funding.
Carlson denied that the contract was for lobbying. "We didn't hire him to be a lobbyist. He was hired to give us strategic advice," he told the Washington Times on Feb. 9. CPB management gave similar assurances to board members at the meeting, but half of the board adamantly opposed the contract and pressed for its cancellation.
The dissenting members included Carolyn Bacon, Diane Blair, Martha Buchanan, Victor Gold and Alan Sagner.
Chairman Henry Cauthen told Current he also had doubts about the contract. "I didn't know what mission to assign to it," he said.
Sheila Tate, Cauthen's predecessor as chairman, supported the deal. "[F]rom the standpoint of good business judgment, we have to respond to Congress's request that we come up with some options for funding cuts, or it will be imposed on us," Tate told the Washington Post. Management's choice of experts was "smart," she said. "If it was a Democratic-controlled Congress, and they were talking about cuts, I would go out and hire the best strategic business planners I could and a Democratic strategist."
Blair, a leading opponent of the contract and a friend of President and Mrs. Clinton, had a different view about hiring merger and acquisition specialists. The contract included a subcontract with Wasserstein-Perella, a Wall Street investment banking firm, which was to get $150,000 to help develop the plan, according to the Post. This subcontract "could be taken as waving the white flag of surrender, when we really have begun to make a good, strong, positive case on Capitol Hill," Blair said.
Press accounts of the controversy have portrayed Blair's objections to the contract as stridently partisan. Conservative columnist Robert Novak reported Feb. 13 that Blair vowed, "We're going to give it to Gingrich," at a dinner with fellow board members. "CPB sources" told Novak that Blair left the board's executive session to inform the First Lady of the deal.
Blair said that Novak had "mischaracterized" her objections to the contract, and she wondered whether her concern "about whether we were giving in to Gingrich" was misheard as "giving it" to him. She denied discussing the contract with the First Lady and that she had a predisposition against Weber that influenced her reaction to the contract. "My only real impression of Vin Weber is that I've sometimes enjoyed listening to him on NPR."
Weber, then a regular political commentator on NPR, drew fire last year for his commentaries about health care reform on Morning Edition because neither he nor NPR disclosed that he was a paid lobbyist for a group with a major interest in the legislation.
Weber downplayed his conversation with Gingrich after the Washington Times broke the story Feb. 9.
Weber said in the Times that he and Gingrich had dinner together two days before CPB awarded his firm the contract, and Gingrich raised the topic of public broadcasting, saying that Republicans had to fight to end CPB's funding.
Weber said he did not discuss the CPB contract with the speaker, but told the Times, "There's no reason why [public broadcasting] shouldn't be a model for successful privatization."
"My view is that Congress is going to zero out public broadcasting and a lot of other activities as well," he continued. "The question is, do they want to take control of their own destiny and guide the path towards becoming an unsubsidized entity or just fight to protect the subsidy?"
But the Times story also noted that several days after Weber's dinner with Gingrich the speaker publicly expressed regret about how he had announced his plans to eliminate CPB's federal funding.
"I should have gotten up and said, 'Look, we're going to have Sesame Street, we're going to have Barney, we're going to keep the ability to have public television, even though it's going to be operated in a different way," Gingrich said in a speech during a Republican fundraising dinner.
In a Washington Post report the next day, however, Weber said that he had had a "two-minute" conversation with Gingrich about public broadcasting while driving the speaker to dinner. Weber again maintained that Gingrich brought up the topic and that he had not informed him of his talks with CPB.
"The notion that this was a long conversation is wrong," Weber told the Post. "But I do believe I got the flavor of it right: 'We're not backing away from subsidization."
Despite several board members' strong objections to the contract from the outset, management attempted to keep it alive for the next two weeks after their meeting. In a conference call, the board was informed that Carlson had discussed the idea of hiring outside expertise with House appropriations subcommittee Chairman John Porter (R-Ill.), who endorsed the effort, according to a CPB source. Management also proposed paying for the contract through the Annenberg Foundation, which has backed two major CPB education projects. The source suggested that the use of outside funding would allow CPB to circumvent lobbying restrictions.
Cauthen said Annenberg funding was considered as a way to give "more validity" to a study that would not be paid for by CPB, which has an interest in its outcome. "All of those things are being discussed right now," Cauthen added.
Gingrich said Feb. 16 that Weber was fired because he advised them to look to make private-sector plans, not because "it looked bad to hire a lobbyist," according to the Post. Clinton appointees on the board "fired him because that's not what they wanted to hear."
In fact, three of the five dissenting board members were Bush appointees.
Gingrich went on to reveal his own thinking about how public broadcasting could be privatized: "They're sitting on very valuable assets. Channel 8 in Atlanta is choice spectrum. Sell that slot to a commercial operation, move PBS to Channel 36, and Georgia public broadcasting could live forever on the interest from that trust fund."
Web page originally posted Jan. 25, 1997
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