Congress reacts hotly to station donor-list swaps with Democrats
Originally published in Current, July 19, 1999
By Steve Behrens
Suddenly, pubcasting is in for a severe talking-to, if not a whupping. The House subcommittee that held such a congenial hearing on CPB's long-overdue reauthorization a fortnight earlier is now preparing a second hearing July 20 to take pubcasters to task for swapping donor mailing lists with the Democratic Party.
House Republicans were angry last week when they learned that Boston's WGBH did it this spring, and angrier when they heard there were other times. And tempers will rise as similar reports come in from other stations. WNET in New York and WETA in Washington told reporters late last week that they've traded lists with both Democratic and Republican groups.
Some stations refuse to sell or swap mailing lists at all, or have rules against doing so with political groups, but an unknown number of stations do it routinely. They didn't see this latest controversy until it hit them.
Subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will cut back proposed CPB funding ceilings in his pending authorization bill, said spokesman Ken Johnson: "This was CPB and PBS's wish list, and what I'm telling you is: Santa Claus has left the building."
Tauzin will also add language expressly forbidding what WGBH did, the spokesman said: "If it falls into a gray area today, it won't be a gray area when we're finished with our legislation." Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) drafted a provision for the CPB bill that would order the General Accounting Office to look into instances of public stations providing mailing lists to political parties.
Heads of pubcasting's four major national organizations, meanwhile, said they'll work with Congress to make sure stations don't buy, sell or trade lists with partisan groups, and CPB informed its inspector general about the issue. "We do not condone this practice," said a July 16 statement from the presidents of CPB, PBS, NPR and APTS.
After days of punishment in the press, WGBH appealed for understanding in an op-ed submitted to the Boston Globe for weekend publication. President Henry Becton said the station has asked its outside auditors to review its donor-list practices and policies. "We await their report and will take whatever measures are necessary to move forward with a system and oversight structure equal to the high standards you expect of us," Becton wrote. [Full text.]
One consistent aspect of WGBH's response has been that it officially opposes list dealings with political groups, and that staffers had violated that rule.
The station hasn't argued that its actions were legal, but it did look into the matter in May, by consulting a tax-law expert. "We don't believe it was a violation of the law--even an inadvertent violation of the law," said Eric Braff, a corporate counsel at the station. The pertinent law is the one prohibiting nonprofits from lobbying or supporting political candidates, Braff said, and that doesn't apply to the list swaps because they were "an exchange of fair value."
In other words, the station was acquiring DNC names for its own fundraising, not trying to support the DNC. The distinction may explain the list swaps, but to Tauzin's subcommittee it may not excuse them.
Is a friend of Barney a friend of Bill?
WGBH's list swaps came to public attention in May, after four-year-old Sam Black of Wellesley, Mass.--a fan of Barney--received a fundraising letter from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). His mother, Jody, a Republican and ex-lawyer, who had made a $40 donation to WGBH in her name and Sam's, figured out the connection and told the Globe.
"We immediately apologized," recalled Jeanne Hopkins, WGBH's v.p. of communications. "It violated our own policy against sharing names with political and religious groups."
Though the story was front-page news in Boston in May, it didn't hit D.C. until July 13, when Republicans on Tauzin's subcommittee circulated a Globe clipping. The chairman, who had just proposed a 40 percent boost in CPB's authorized levels for 2002 [earlier story], was unpleasantly surprised. He cancelled a July 14 mark-up of the CPB bill.
"Frankly, he feels a bit betrayed," his spokesman told Current. "Someone at CPB had to know about the Boston Globe article. We walked into an ambush. Billy is going to think twice before he sticks his neck out again."
With the Globe's followup article the next day, highlighting the change of weather in Tauzin's subcommittee, list-swapping became a national story. "The Battle of Big Bird broke out again," reported the Globe.
"It was a mistake," Hopkins said in the article. ". . . This was not a partisan act." She told reporters that the station had adopted a policy against swapping with political groups in 1994, and a new employee unaware of the policy had okayed a swap of "several thousand" names with the DNC.
Hopkins had to eat her words the next day, when DNC spokeswoman Jenny Backus told the Globe that the station had swapped more than 32,000 names since 1993--many of them since its 1994 policy change.
"As inexcusable as it was, the initial explanation seemed plausible," objected Tauzin's spokesman later, "but now that we've learned it was a pattern, the explanation doesn't wash anymore."
Hopkins told Current that WGBH had not checked back far enough when it portrayed the DNC swap as an isolated error. The station soon found records of additional swaps in the files of its list broker. Soon after the policy change, the DNC asked for additional WGBH names to cover a shortfall on the previous list, Hopkins said, and a staff member complied, thinking the station was obligated to come through. "We're still trying to get the facts," she said, by asking for a review by WGBH's auditors, Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
The story spread late last week as reporters quizzed other stations. Some responded with releases, like New Hampshire PTV which said it "has not, does not and will not sell or rent the names of our members for any purpose." Boston's WBUR-FM told Current the same.
WNET's Stella Giamassi told the press that, without the station's knowledge, its list broker had swapped its donor list with both parties, and the list broker had been fired.
At WETA, spokeswoman Mary Stewart said the station had swapped with many cultural groups and magazine publishers, as well as Democratic and Republican groups. "We're mostly looking for people who have a giving history," she said. But if Congress becomes concerned, "we will reevaluate our policy," Stewart told the Washington Post.
Barbara Appleby of public radio's Development Exchange said she suspects that list swapping with parties is "fairly widespread" in public radio because party donors often have the demographics of station donors. She said the Development Exchange this week will suggest guidelines for stations to manage their list exchanges with consideration for donors' and stations' interests, as well as public relations.
Helen Kennedy, a fundraising consultant in Portland, Ore., said she regularly rents DNC lists for stations and other clients. And if the Republican National Committee list showed a good response rate, she said, "I would have rented that, too."
To Current's home page
Earlier coverage: Tauzin introduces CPB reauthorization bill.
Related document: WGBH President Henry Becton apologizes to the community in Boston Globe op-ed.
Later coverage: CPB sets rule against list deals with political groups, July 1999.
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