Cuts to Public Radio and TV Scaled Back
The House of Representatives voted Thursday to restore $100 million in proposed cuts to public television and radio, softening a measure that public broadcasters had warned could cripple small stations.
Even as the vote gave solace to public television and radio officials, the board of the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting tapped a former Republican Party co-chairwoman to lead the agency, alarming Democrats who contend an ideological takeover of public broadcasting is underway.
Acting on an amendment from Reps. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and James A. Leach (R-Iowa), the House voted 284-140 to restore money to the agency’s $400-million budget. The measure would be paid for with savings from unrelated federal education, health and labor programs. Eighty-seven Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the amendment.
If approved by the House today as part of a larger appropriations bill, the current budget reduction would amount to a 25% cut for public broadcasting -- far less than the 46% originally proposed.
“This kind of bipartisan support [for the amendment] just kind of cuts through all the clutter about CPB,” said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. “It says that a lot of people of all political stripes support us and our funding.”
Despite Thursday’s bipartisan vote, the debate fell mostly along party lines, with Republicans arguing that the system has sufficient resources, and Democrats, joined by a few GOP colleagues, countering that the proposed cuts could wipe out small stations.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee that first approved the cuts, said the reductions were necessary to overcome a budget shortfall.
“I am a fan of public broadcasting and public radio,” said Regula, adding that his grandchildren love “Sesame Street” characters Elmo and Big Bird.
“But keep in mind that this was created at a time, some 30-plus years ago, when we didn’t have the huge variety of programming that’s available today,” he said. “And keep in mind, of course, that we have limited amounts of money.”
Regula and other Republicans pointed out that cable channels had multiplied since the creation of public broadcasting in 1967, and that they now offered the kind of programming found on PBS. They said they believed public broadcasting had sufficient support from corporate and private donors.
“Big Bird and his friends can fly on their own,” said Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.). “This will not jeopardize any program or any station, because they have ample resources already on hand to make up that difference.”
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) pulled out a poster of Big Bird standing before a pile of cash. “What PBS doesn’t want you to know: Big Bird is a billionaire,” she said, arguing that the licensing of “Sesame Street” characters brings in more than $1 billion annually.
In fact, the royalties bring in about $60 million annually, 60% of the budget of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit production company that makes “Sesame Street” and other educational programs, according to the workshop’s chief executive, Gary Knell.
Democrats rejected arguments that public broadcasting could survive on its own, saying the loss in federal funds would shut down small and rural stations that did not have the large base of donors enjoyed by stations in urban areas.
“Big Bird will be around, but many small stations won’t,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). “You are undermining the fabric of the public station infrastructure that allows it to be seen in the first place.”
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) blamed Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for the proposed cuts, saying he “opened the floodgates of criticism” by questioning the balance in programming.
Many Democrats pleased with the House vote nevertheless expressed worry about the future of public broadcasting under the agency’s new administrator, Patricia de Stacy Harrison.
As its president, Harrison will oversee the private agency that distributes federal funds to public television and radio stations nationwide. She enjoys wide support among GOP conservatives, including chairman Tomlinson, who has set out to right what he perceives as a liberal bias in public broadcasting shows.
Harrison’s selection drew criticism from liberal groups, who said she was too partisan and had no background in broadcasting. It also sparked a call for a government inquiry of the appointment process from one lawmaker, who said Harrison’s previous stint as co-chair of the Republican National Committee made her selection questionable.
“The appointment of Patricia Harrison as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s new president smells to high heaven of secrecy and partisanship,” said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). “Such an outrageous choice of CPB president demands an immediate investigation into the search and selection process that led to this egregious appointment.”
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he too would support an investigation and said he had asked the Senate Commerce Committee to convene a hearing.
In a statement, Tomlinson said an executive search firm had “extensive discussions” with 80 candidates for the post. The eight-member agency board interviewed four finalists earlier this week before selecting Harrison.
Station representatives said that while they also had concerns about the process, they view Harrison as a capable manager who supports public broadcasting. They pledged to work with her.
“Patricia Harrison has a reputation for competence and inclusiveness,” said Lawson of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. “She has a unique opportunity to reach out to all sides and begin rebuilding trust in CPB.”
Harrison, who most recently served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs, said in a statement that she would work to restore any budget aimed at public broadcasting.
Still on the table is the elimination of the $23-million Ready to Learn program, which helps finance programs such as “Sesame Street,” along with the eradication of $79 million in federal funds earmarked to help stations convert to digital broadcasts and upgrade the PBS satellite system. The cuts are part of a large package of reductions in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill, which is facing a $1.6-billion shortfall.