Public broadcasting executives already knew they faced a stiff fight this year to protect their federal appropriation in Congress amid stern calls for deficit reduction.
But after a conservative activist released a video this week of a top National Public Radio fundraiser maligning “tea party” activists and the Republican party, station managers are bracing for the worst.
The controversy, which led to the rapid resignation of NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller, hit as Congress is wrangling over this year’s budget. In its version, the House stripped all federal funding for public broadcasting, which would amount to a cut of $445 million in 2013, a drop of 15% on average for nearly 1,300 local public radio and television stations around the country.
The cuts would be significantly deeper for small and rural stations, including nearly two dozen that get at least half of their revenue from federal money distributed by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.
“The loss of federal funding would be devastating,” said Eric Smith, general manager of WNMU, which operates public television and radio stations in Marquette, Mich., that broadcast across remote areas of the Upper Peninsula and northeast Wisconsin.
Conservatives have long targeted federal support for public media, accusing NPR and PBS of having a liberal bent. This week, congressional leaders pounced on the incident involving now-departed NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian Schiller), who was captured on a hidden video suggesting that NPR would be better off in the long run without taxpayer support.
“Perhaps the truth finally came out,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Steve Bass, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting and a member of the NPR board of directors, said he’s worried that the bipartisan support the system historically enjoyed, particularly in the Senate, has been eroded by Schiller’s comments. Activists posing as members of a fictitious Muslim organization recorded the then-NPR executive calling tea party activists “seriously racist, racist people,” among other inflammatory remarks.
“I fear this may make it harder for people to stand up and support something I think they still believe in,” Bass said.
“The situation at NPR with Ron Schiller’s outrageous comments could not have come at a worst time in terms of federal funding,” added Tim Isgitt, Corp. for Public Broadcasting’s senior vice president for government affairs. “With the deficit challenge that Congress is trying to address right now, we unfortunately have given them a little fodder for cause for defunding.”
The budget fight will likely get decided in the Senate, which has traditionally been more supportive of public broadcasting. But Senate leaders are under pressure to come up with a compromise bill that gets closer to the House proposal, which put Head Start preschools, low-income heating assistance and health services on the chopping block.
“I’ve never been in favor of eliminating funding until now,” said Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican who acknowledged that “people who I very much value love public broadcasting.
“I’ve always been supportive of it, but right now, I’m willing to cut back on a lot of things,” he added.
Public broadcasting advocates said they remain hopeful that Congress will ultimately approve some funding for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the private entity that distributes federal funds. (Seventy percent of CPB funds go to local stations, which, in turn, pay dues to NPR and PBS. CPB also gives PBS federal money for series such as “American Experience,” “PBS NewsHour” and “Sesame Street.”)
“The events of this week have not been helpful, obviously, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re finding from our soundings on Capitol Hill that at least most of the people who were with us are still with us,” said Patrick Butler, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, who noted that even critics such as Cantor told him they’ve heard from constituents who do not want public media cut.
Allies include senators from rural states, such as Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska who has otherwise criticized Democrats for not going far enough on budget cuts.
“When the Nebraska Legislature is in session, it’s the equivalent of C-Span for Congress,” Nelson said of the state’s PBS station.
Public media also have a fan in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a regular NPR listener who tunes in during his daily exercise routine.
But some public broadcasting executives fear they face an uphill battle, noting that conservatives were already inflamed by NPR’s decision in the fall to fire longtime political analyst Juan Williams after he said on Fox News that he worried when he saw Muslims in traditional garb on airplanes.
Opposition “was already hardened because of Juan Williams,” said Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9), the public radio station in Santa Monica, who spent two days in Washington this week urging members of Congress to preserve funding. “The Democratic lawmakers I talked to said, ‘We can’t help. There’s nothing happening across the aisle.’ ”
The turmoil has left NPR employees reeling. On Thursday, nearly two dozen staffers — including “All Things Considered” hosts Robert Siegel, Melissa Block and Michele Norris — signed an open letter decrying Schiller’s comments.
Scott Simon, host of “Weekend Edition Saturday,” said he was “sickened” by Schiller’s remarks.
“He sounded elitist, smug, toady, isolated,” he said in an interview. “I just wish the people in positions of authority had known he conducted himself that way earlier.”
NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm called the events of the last week “traumatic” for the organization.
“We are focused on how we can restore the parts of our reputation that have been damaged,” she said, adding that there will be an effort to spotlight NPR journalists “talking about how they do their work and why they are here.”
“It’s incredibly undermining,” Rehm said of Schiller’s comments. “But our people have been doing outstanding work this week. They’re enduring, and they will endure.”