Score one for Big Bird.
Public broadcasters won a major victory last week when 87 House Republicans bucked their own leadership and joined Democrats in restoring $100 million in proposed budget cuts to noncommercial stations.
The June 23 vote came on the same day directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting installed Patricia Harrison, former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, as CPB president. The nomination of a political operative to head what is supposed to be a non-partisan organization caused an outcry, including calls for the resignation of Harrison’s chief sponsor, CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, among Democrats and many public-broadcasting supporters.
Public broadcasters’ surprisingly strong showing in the House and the continuing controversy at CPB greatly increase chances that the Senate will restore another $100 million in cuts to specific public-broadcasting programming and operational initiatives that the House did approve.
The installation of Harrison to head CPB will energize Democrats and mediaactivist groups like Free Press to continue aggressive lobbying, both to make sure the added funds are restored and to push for Tomlinson’s resignation.
“Her complete lack of experience and close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party represent a new low in public-broadcasting history,” says Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver.
Continuing efforts to eject Tomlinson over Harrison’s hiring are likely to fail, however. The CPB board installed her despite vocal opposition by Democrats and groups like Free Press and Common Cause. The Bush administration also gave Tomlinson a strong endorsement. “We continue to support him in his work,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
Tomlinson has become a target for criticism because of his effort to achieve political “balance” on public broadcasting. He argues that shows like Bill Moyers’ NOW have given public broadcasting a liberal tilt, and he wants more conservative programming, too.
Unwilling to fuel more controversy, Republican senators are vowing not to cut public-broadcasting operations at all. “My boss is a supporter of CPB,” says a spokeswoman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose committee oversees funding for the public-broadcasting system. “He thinks it does good work and wants to see that it continues to be funded.”
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), a former owner of Montana radio stations, also opposes any reduction in public broadcasters’ funding. Says an aide, “Sen. Burns is an old broadcaster and tries to make sure things like this don’t happen.”
The cuts that remain in the House bill would eliminate the $70 million required to operate the PBS interconnection system used to transmit programming to stations and $24 million for the Ready To Learn initiative, which combines TV programming with supplemental lesson plans and other teaching tools. The Ready To Learn program is supported by President Bush.
If the Senate votes to restore all of the additional PBS funds, the fight won’t end there. Negotiators from both sides of Congress must then meet and iron out differences between their two bills, creating another opportunity for budget reductions to become law.
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) suggests that public broadcasting’s critics shouldn’t give up. “We’re talking about tight budgets and funding our troops, but the [Democrats] won’t let us cut from the most obvious sources.” She says public broadcasting will do just fine by relying on private contributions and its own investments.
But with public broadcasting showing strong support in voter polls, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) predicts the House GOP bid to slash public broadcasting will create a backlash they will regret. “My friends on the other side know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
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