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Still a political football

It has been almost three years to the day since the House last held a hearing on public broadcasting, but the service is still one of Congress's favorite political footballs.

Last week, the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee held its first oversight hearing on public broadcasting since July 13, 1999. It was at that hearing that committee members discovered that Boston noncom WGBH-TV had been sharing its fundraising lists with Democratic organizations. The political backlash lasts in some ways to this day. It was one reason Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), then chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, withdrew support for a bill that would have substantially increased public broadcasting's funding.

Republicans were still distressed last week, this time over a story National Public Radio did about the Traditional Values Coalition, a group promoting conservative Christian values.

In January, TVC got a call from NPR reporter David Kestenbaum looking into federal investigators' comments that right-wing groups were possible suspects in the October anthrax attacks on Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Kestenbaum remembered a press release TVC issued in August 2001 complaining that Daschle and Leahy supported removing the words "so help me God" from official Senate business.

Kestenbaum asked TVC if the group "had been contacted by the FBI yet," according to TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty. She was so offended that TVC immediately issued a press release criticizing NPR, saying, "No wonder many in Washington refer to it as National People's Radio."

Three weeks later, NPR ran a story that referred to TVC's press releases on the senators and on NPR's "allegation."

The story further upset TVC. "Clearly, NPR employees graduated from the school of anti-Christian bigotry where their new math of 2+2=4 equates to: Christian organization + speaking out against Senators = MURDER," wrote Lafferty in her submitted testimony.

NPR President Kevin Klose apologized publicly to Lafferty during the hearing, but Lafferty said that was not enough and called for an end to all federal funding of NPR.

As witnesses to the dispute, members of Congress split along party lines. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Tauzin said the incident makes him feel "conflicted" about public broadcasting and gives him the "feeling that there is not necessarily objective coverage all the time." Said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.): "I'm not conflicted at all about my support of public broadcasting. Controversy comes with everything public."

Members also focused on public broadcasting's transition to digital. Though divided on whether public broadcasters should receive federal funds for operations, Republicans supported help with the transition.

"If I had to vote to de-fund public broadcasting, I would," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). "I would give it no federal money for operations, but I would give it federal dollars to make the transition."

Public broadcasters say the transition will cost them $1.8 billion. They have raised nearly $775 million, but most committee members agreed that the government needs to help close the $1 billion gap.

The FCC deadline for the DTV transition is next May, but John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, estimates that 20%- 30% of public broadcasters will miss the deadline if the government doesn't step in. Even then, many are having to make the transition on the cheap, with "bare minimum of power requirements," Lawson told the committee.