Public broadcasting’s response to a detailed inquiry by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) arrived on Capitol Hill the evening of Feb. 10 , accompanied by three boxes of supporting material. All but one of the major national organizations submitted responses to the Senate Commerce Committee chairman’s 16-page, single-spaced questionnaire, which included more than 200 questions about the field’s financing, program policies and interrelationships. Pressler earlier had withdrawn some of his queries about political contributions by public broadcasting employees and personal data on NPR staffers. CPB said collecting the information by the senator’s deadline cost $92,000 for staff time, legal fees and copying.
Public broadcasting’s response to a detailed inquiry by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) arrived on Capitol Hill the evening of Feb. 10, accompanied by three boxes of supporting material. All but one of the major national organizations submitted responses to the Senate Commerce Committee chairman’s 16-page, single-spaced questionnaire, which included more than 200 questions about the field’s financing, program policies and interrelationships [earlier story]. Pressler earlier had withdrawn some of his queries about political contributions by public broadcasting employees and personal data on NPR staffers. CPB said collecting the information by the senator’s deadline cost $92,000 for staff time, legal fees and copying.
“When you basically cut the legs out
under the gang that’s gotten you to this point,
this has to mean something,”
said a prominent programmer,
“so the question is, what does it mean?” Passed over for the top programming spot in PBS’s January reorganization, Jennifer Lawson resigned her position last week. Her deputy, John Grant, also quit. Lawson joined PBS five years ago as its first chief program executive, entrusted with greater authority and more cash than previous PBS programmers to shape the schedule and bargain with producers. The departures of Lawson and Grant will clear the way for executives hired by President Ervin Duggan to follow their own programming vision–a subject of much speculation and some anxiety among station programmers who met with PBS earlier this month.
Three polls taken last month gave majorities of 62 to 84 percent favoring CPB’s federal funding. Then, a few days later, comes one showing the public 63 percent okaying cutbacks. Why such a flip-flop? “Question wording can move poll results very drastically,” replies John Brennan, polling director at the Los Angeles Times, which published the fourth poll. In the first three polls, the questions about CPB appropriations simply asked whether the funding should be continued or eliminated or, in the case of PBS’s own commissioned poll, whether it should be increased, maintained or decreased.
When public broadcasters awoke on Jan. 23 , they saw the headlines and their heads started spinning. Newspapers reported that Bell Atlantic [later renamed Verizon] was interested in a partnership with CPB “that would have the Baby Bell step into the funding role now played by the federal government,” as the Wall Street Journal put it. That news came from Sen. Larry Pressler who revealed on CBS’s Face the Nation that the company and other telecom firms were interested in buying or partnering with public broadcasting after Congress privatizes it. To people who thought they understood media economics, it made no sense.
For an industry that has “elitist” planted on its back like a hard-to-reach sticky label, the most critical piece of public broadcasting’s campaign to save itself may be the grassroots response. Opponents of CPB funding in Congress complain they’re swamped with calls and some charge that pubcasters, because they get federal funds, can’t legally lobby. Stations argue that they are within their rights as long as they don’t use federal money to lobby. When constituent calls and letters reach a “critical mass,” they penetrate
even the toughest mind-sets in Congress, said Bond. “Constituents always can make a difference.
It’s time to privatize Congress. The federal subsidy of this playground for the rich is bleeding American taxpayers and adding to the deficit. Not only does Congress cost more than $60 million annually in direct salaries, but its staff, perks and infrastructure add hundreds of millions more. Why should all of us pay for an institution benefiting only the few? Each congressional candidate should seek sponsorship from a corporation or association willing to pay his campaign costs and, if elected, his salary and office expenses.
The little town where I grew up — Manning, S.C. — was small enough that we could walk to church on Sunday. My Sunday School teacher was a Southern matriarch named Virginia Richards Sauls, one of nine daughters of a South Carolina governor. Miss Virginia, as we called her, never tired of telling us the great stories of the Bible. Her favorite was the Parable of the Talents. In that parable, a rich man leaving on a journey entrusts his property — measured in what were called talents — to his three servants for safekeeping.
An inquiry by Sen. Larry Pressler last week put public broadcasters on notice that they face hostile scrutiny during Senate consideration of CPB’s reauthorization. The South Dakota senator’s office sent a 16-page, single-spaced questionnaire to CPB and other major pubcasting organizations seeking a myriad details about the field’s finances and program policies, as well as the political contributions of those working within the field and personal data about all members of NPR’s staff. [Later article on the responses.]
Pressler later withdrew a handful of the more than 200 questions after CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen advised him that answering them would violate individuals’ rights to privacy. People for the American Way also criticized Pressler’s inquiry as a attempt to “chill political speech … not seen since the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”