Congress Looks to Cut Funding for Public Broadcasting

House Republicans have put funding for public broadcasting on the chopping block. They say their action isn't related to ideological concerns. The move comes at a time when public broadcasters are confronting allegations of liberal bias.

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Yesterday a key panel in the US House of Representatives recommended deep cuts in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB distributes taxpayer money to support public radio and television stations and programs. The committee's action comes as the head of the CPB has pushed for NPR and PBS to address what he says is the lack of journalistic balance in some of its news programs. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Ten years ago, Republicans who took over the House sought to eliminate funding for public broadcasting. Then Speaker Newt Gingrich argued it squandered taxpayer dollars on a bastion of liberalism. The movement failed. But it gained new life yesterday when a House subcommittee that decides how much money to give to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting each year decided to cut $100 million, a quarter of its annual budget, and there would be no extra money for necessary technical conversion to digital technology. The subcomittee's Republican chairman, Ralph Regula of Ohio, did not respond to requests for comment. Committee spokesman John Scofield would not speak on tape. But off microphone, Scofield said other government programs deserved higher priority than public broadcasting, and he noted the panel's decisions were part of a package making budget cuts in other social programs as well, in large part because of new costs associated with the Medicare prescription drug program. But some critics remained unconvinced.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): The message is think like we think and talk like we talk or we will defund you.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Representative David Obey of Wisconsin. He's the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, and he says the cuts are driven purely by the ideology of conservative Republicans who don't like PBS and NPR.

Rep. OBEY: Eliminating their forward funding is nothing short of an attempt to send an intimidating message to the whole public broadcasting universe. I think it's pretty clear what's going on.

FOLKENFLIK: The Senate has not yet passed its version of the spending bill, but it has tended to be more supportive of public broadcasting than the House. Through a spokeswoman, CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson said he was concerned about the cuts and hoped to work with Congress to regain the funding. NPR and PBS are private, not-for-profit entities that rely on CPB for money each year. At PBS, those funds help to pay for popular shows such as "Sesame Street" and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Pat Mitchell is the CEO of PBS. She says she believes the money will return before next year's budget is passed into law.

Ms. PAT MITCHELL (CEO, Public Broadcasting System): There have been efforts in the past to lessen the appropriations, and the wisdom has prevailed, and the funding has been restored. So we're confident that that's going to happen again.

FOLKENFLIK: Money from CPB provides less than 1 percent of NPR's annual budget, but it represents 15 percent of the budget for individual NPR member stations. NPR's executive vice president, Ken Stern, argued in a memo to all NPR staffers that smaller public radio stations would suffer the most, like those that serve rural populations and minorities. And Stern partly blamed CPB chairman Tomlinson for what Stern said were, quote, "irresponsible attacks on public broadcasting."

Tomlinson has been in the news a lot lately. He told The New York Times that he hopes to name a former chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who is currently a State Department official, as the new president of CPB. He's publicly criticized PBS for what he says is its failure to provide ideological balance in some news programs. And Tomlinson's questioned NPR's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former NBC and CBS News correspondent Marvin Kalb is on an advisory group helping PBS to revise its journalistic standards for the first time in 18 years. But he says those standards should reinforce the independence of PBS.

Mr. MARVIN KALB (PBS Advisory Group): They should not be placed under unnecessary, unwarranted political pressures simply because the government provides a certain amount of money each year to make sure they run.

FOLKENFLIK: The PBS board will meet next Tuesday to weigh the advisory group's recommendations. Many of the changes are technical, for example, addressing PBS Web sites that didn't exist in the 1980s. Others involve principles of journalistic responsibility. One key recommendation: that PBS' own standards be considered paramount for its news shows regardless of what the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or anyone else wants.

PBS officials say the don't expect the updated code to be controversial. But Tomlinson and others at CPB have indicated that if they find PBS' journalistic standards wanting, they could be the ones to withhold money from PBS. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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