Not much has happened in Washington in the two months since a group of conservative Republican senators--claiming that public television and radio were too liberal--used a procedural ploy to hold up a bill authorizing funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But locally, a torrent of concern over the action--known in Senate jargon as a "hold"--has been unleashed by Santa Monica public-radio station KCRW-FM (89.9), which has been using the situation as a fund-raising tool.
In on-air pitches, KCRW station manager Ruth Hirschman and others have accused the Republicans of trying to breach public broadcasting's First Amendment rights. They have urged listeners to support the station in the face of possible financial attacks by the senators, and have provided the phone number for the Washington office of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), under whose auspices the hold was placed.
Dole's office, which has received a steady stream of complaints since the pitches began, responded angrily, calling Hirschman and her station supporters "a bunch of Oliver Stones" who see conspiracy where there is none.
"Democrats put things on hold all the time, and you hardly ever see that reported in the media," said Walt Riker, Dole's press secretary. "I just wish there was some concern for the deficit, instead of for some dwarf radio station."
"This is a big deal to us," retorted Hirschman. "And we've got a big voice. They may be putting holds on all the time, but this is the first time a hold has been put on public broadcasting."
Last month, The Times reported that a group of Republican senators, whose identities were kept secret, had requested that a hold be placed on the bill to authorize funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for 1994, 1995 and 1996. The corporation is an independent agency that uses the federal funds to help support non-commercial radio and television stations and to fund public-broadcasting programs.
At that time, Dole's office said that the senators had a number of concerns about public broadcasting, most of which revolved around the contention that it was too left-wing.
A spokesman for Dole, saying that the Senate Minority Leader was sympathetic to the senators' position, said that the conservatives planned to use the weeks after the hold was placed to detail their concerns to Democrats and public-broadcasting officials. But, so far, that hasn't happened.
"Dole's office won't even return our phone calls," complained a key staff member of the Senate subcommittee that oversees public broadcasting.
Riker said that the Republicans have simply been too busy handling other issues to move on the public-broadcasting hold.
"Right now, we're just swamped," Riker said. "We've got the budget, we've got the recession to deal with, all kinds of tax plans and recovery plans. It (public broadcasting) just hasn't come up as an issue yet."
Holds are common in Washington, Riker insisted, and there is no reason to be alarmed at this one.
"You have all these people flying off the handle when they haven't heard one word from the Senate on these issues," he said, referring to KCRW. "It's unfair. Just cool down and we'll get something when we're ready to go."
David Horowitz, the conservative media gadfly who has been conducting a vigorous campaign to publicize and eliminate what he thinks is a left-wing bent--in some cases, he has said Stalinist--in public broadcasting, said he thinks the Republicans are stalling to avoid turning the issue into a fight over freedom of speech.
Particularly with controversy brewing over the Senate's subpoena of National Public Radio correspondent Nina Totenberg--who angered Republicans as one of two reporters who broke the story of sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas--Dole's office may not want to talk about the hold just now, Horowitz said.
"If I were Dole, I would keep everybody guessing, because if you reveal your hand in advance at all, if he mentions Totenberg at all, it's going to be a First Amendment thing," said Horowitz, who co-wrote the speech Dole delivered at the 1988 Republican convention.
Totenberg has not been named as a direct cause of the hold. However, ever since she broke the story, politicians who say public broadcasting should be reined in--including Dole's spokesmen--have mentioned her prominently among their concerns about what they perceive as left-wing bias.
Riker promised that "as soon as we're ready," the Republicans will reveal their charges against public broadcasting, and cautioned Senate Democrats to be ready for a floor fight once the bill is heard.
At the same time, a new bill in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), would eliminate funding for public broadcasting altogether.
Industry and political observers say it is unlikely, however, that the Republican groups behind either move will actually be able to cut off funding, simply because public broadcasting has too many supporters on both sides of the aisle.
Still, KCRW defends its fund-raising approach. Hirschman and other on-air personnel have been breaking into regular programming several times each hour, warning that the station might lose its federal funding as a result of the hold and saying that a highly placed source has told Hirschman that as many as 40 senators are secretly behind it.
However, sources in the offices of both Dole and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees public broadcasting, told The Times that they believe no more than six senators are involved.
As of Thursday morning, station spokeswoman Sarah Spitz said that a week into its pledge campaign KCRW had raised $376,925, with $450,000 expected by the end of the day. Donations were coming in faster than they did last year, Spitz said, when the station exhorted listeners to ante up to help pay for coverage of the Persian Gulf War.
"(Wednesday) was the first day we really had our story straight on what happened with the hold, and we did better (that day) on every program," Spitz said.