Pressler stocking up on ammunition

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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.

Pressler (right) debates PBS President Ervin Duggan on ABC’s Nightline.

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.”

During a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last month, congressional supporters warned CPB leaders that public broadcasting must be prepared to take some cuts. Testimony from the field’s most persistent critics foreshadowed what was to come from Pressler.

The Senate Commerce Committee that Pressler chairs has not set a date for CPB hearings, but America’s Public Television Stations President David Brugger predicted the communications subcommittee will begin work in March on CPB legislation. Meanwhile, the House Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to follow up last month’s hearing with a mark-up for its recission bill in mid-February; a floor vote is planned for March 8.

Can anyone ‘save this system’?

Although the new Congress is zealously pursuing its mandate to reduce federal spending, the subcommittees with authority over CPB have had solid majorities that supported straightforward appropriations votes in the past, judging from an analysis of past voting records by Current.

However, when a 1993 House vote on CPB’s appropriation became clouded with the powerful issue of alleged anti-semitism on Pacifica stations, and the amendment proposed a cut of only $1 million, a narrow majority supported it. That vote could be a harbinger of moderate cuts in the name of another powerful issue, the federal budget deficit.

In the Senate, support to preserve CPB funding was strong among members of both subcommittees in the last Congress. But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a key congressional defender who has built bipartisan support for CPB in the past, recently acknowledged his own deep concerns about the field’s performance and future, a factor that could greatly tilt CPB’s Senate support in the other direction.

“I’ve had people who have said to me, ‘I’ve voted with you before because I thought you were right and you could save this system,’ ” Sen. Stevens said in an interview with Alaskan pubcaster Diane Kaplan. “Now I’m listening to people tell me that there’s no way to save the system.”

Pressler believes his privatization plan will “cause more money to be available” to public broadcasters and will not affect program content, according to Don Checots, executive director of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, who met with the senator last month. “He believes very strongly his privatization plan will work.”

One of the few public broadcasters who have had the opportunity to talk directly with the senator and his staff, Checots wasn’t convinced. “I don’t think anybody knows where he’s coming from. There’s a lot more to this than just saving money.”

Opening statement

If that wasn’t apparent to observers before, it certainly became so Jan. 30, when a copy of Pressler’s letter to Cauthen and attached questionnaire were quoted in the conservative Washington Times.

CPB received a faxed copy of the document that afternoon. “We read about it in the paper,” acknowledged a CPB source.

In a letter to Cauthen, Pressler warned him and other leaders “not to give us threats to take Barney and Big Bird off the air. That sort of ‘close the Washington Monument’ strategy insults the intelligence of the American taxpayers. It won’t preserve the subsidy.”

The prosecutorial tone of the questionnaire, much of it seemingly based on the investigations of conservative critic Laurence Jarvik, heightened concerns about the treatment public broadcasters will receive when Pressler’s committee takes up CPB’s reauthorization.

“It sent the debate into a new low,” said Leslie Harris, public policy director of People for the American Way. “It’s very hard to imagine, when he starts throwing these kinds of bombs, how you get it back on to a level playing field.”

The questionnaire requests information about the inner workings of the field–its lobbying activities, program funding and grantmaking policies, contractual agreements with and financial data on major independent production companies, ancillary product sales, and handling of certain controversial programs.

“Some conservative producers have complained of PBS executives giving them a hard time for ideological reasons,” the questionnaire states. In a series of inquiries that follows, it seeks details about all the editorial changes requested for Michael Pack’s film “Campus Culture Wars” as compared to those for American Experience‘s “The Liberators” and Frontline‘s “Journey to the Occupied Lands.”

Numerous leading questions follow, such as: “Have John Dinges at NPR and Mary Jane McKinven at PBS done a good job at assuring balance and objectivity in programming? If so, why are there so many complaints?”

Pressler also demanded lists of:

  • all political contributions of $250 or more by “individuals employed by or working under contract for CPB-funded entities”;
  • the annual income of PBS, NPR and APR [Public Radio International] on-air talent from public broadcasting sources;
  • names and job categories of NPR staff who have worked for Pacifica stations and those “who have worked for evangelical Christian stations”;
  • job descriptions of all full-time NPR staff members with details about their gender, age, length of service, salary and ethnicity.

Give up the money

“This is not a witchhunt,” Pressler said, responding to a reporter’s question during a Feb. 2 press conference. The senator said he plans to publish the response in the Congressional Record and called his questionnaire a “legitimate matter of public inquiry.”

“If CPB were privatized we wouldn’t have these problems,” Pressler added.But as long as the system receives public money it will be subject to this type of scrutiny. “If they adopt my plan of privatization, those problems will go away.”

The next day, Pressler withdrew some of his requests for personal data after a Feb. 1 letter from Cauthen politely advised the senator that “certain questions may require CPB to release information that violate privacy rights or proprietary business relationships.”

People for the American Way also protested Pressler’s tactics. “The extraordinary set of interrogatories … not only smack of political intimidation, they also raise fundamental First Amendment concerns,” wrote President Arthur Kropp and Harris in Feb. 1 letter to Pressler. “[A]s the content and tone of the questions make clear, your calls for privatization have everything to do with ideology and very little to do with balancing the budget.”

Writing to Cauthen Feb. 2 that he had given “careful consideration” to CPB’s concerns about individual privacy, Pressler said he did not want personal information about NPR staff or a list of political contributions by people working in public broadcasting.

“I am sure you have no misunderstanding about my intentions in seeking information about public broadcasting’s compliance with federal law requiring mechanisms to assure balance and objectivity,” Sen. Pressler wrote. “Meanwhile, I am troubled by your apparent unwillingness to make the effort to provide a full fiscal picture of public broadcasting.”

Cauthen told Current that the senator’s response to his letter is a positive sign. “I’m pleased that he’s withdrawn some of the questionnaire and the lines of communication seem to be open and he’s willing to listen to our concerns.” CPB last week encouraged stations and other organizations throughout the system to be “as responsive as they can be.”

Not a one-slice fight

Questioning from House members was somewhat less antagonistic during a Jan. 19 hearing before the Labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee. Representatives most wanted to know what the impact would be if Congress did indeed “zero-out” funding for CPB.

“It would have a very serious impact on the way we know the system today,” said CPB President Richard Carlson. He estimated that 90 of “the smallest” public radio and television stations would go black. “In fairly short order,” public broadcasting would feel the “largest, most serious impact in the programs and services that will be cut.”

“What you and your supporters are going to have to keep in mind is that this is not just a one-slice fight,” warned Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee. Congress will be under an “immense budget squeeze” for at least the next seven years. Reductions in CPB’s appropriations will be a “continuing threat you’re going to have to be prepared to deal with.”

Not all the exchanges with House members were friendly, however. Rep. Robert Livingston, chairman of the full appropriations committee blasted stations’ “lobbying” to save CPB. One of three panels that followed testimony from CPB leaders Cauthen and Carlson featured conservative critics of public broadcasting, who attacked the field for its liberal bias, “anti-family” programming, an unfavorable coverage of their special interests.

In the strongest defense offered for the field, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) read the newspaper listing of commercial TV programs for that day and compared it to PTV’s day-long line-up of children’s programs. “PBS is the equivalent of the public school bus cruising down the information superhighway,” Markey said. “It is our society’s vehicle for bringing everyone along to the future.”

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