Public Broadcasting Targeted By House
Friday, June 10, 2005
A House subcommittee voted yesterday to sharply reduce the federal government's financial support for public broadcasting, including eliminating taxpayer funds that help underwrite such popular children's educational programs as "Sesame Street," "Reading Rainbow," "Arthur" and "Postcards From Buster."
In addition, the subcommittee acted to eliminate within two years all federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which passes federal funds to public broadcasters -- starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB's budget for next year, from $400 million to $300 million.
In all, the cuts would represent the most drastic cutback of public broadcasting since Congress created the nonprofit CPB in 1967. The CPB funds are particularly important for small TV and radio stations and account for about 15 percent of the public broadcasting industry's total revenue.
Expressing alarm, public broadcasters and their supporters in Congress interpreted the move as an escalation of a Republican-led campaign against a perceived liberal bias in their programming. That effort was initiated by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's own chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.
"Americans overwhelmingly see public broadcasting as an unbiased information source," Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said in a statement. "Perhaps that's what the GOP finds so offensive about it. Republican leaders are trying to bring every facet of the federal government under their control. . . . Now they are trying to put their ideological stamp on public broadcasting."
But the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education asserted that the panel was simply making choices among various worthy government programs, and that no political message was intended.
The subcommittee's action, which came on a voice vote, doesn't necessarily put Big Bird on the Endangered Species List. House members could restore funding as the appropriations bill moves along or, more likely, when the House and Senate meet to reconcile budget legislation later this year. The Senate has traditionally been a stronger ally of public broadcasting than the House, whose former speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), waged a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to "zero out" funding for the CPB a decade ago.
The cuts nevertheless surprised people in public broadcasting. In his budget sent to Congress in February, President Bush had recommended reducing CPB's budget only slightly.
Several denounced the decision by the panel, which has 10 Republicans and seven Democrats, as payback by a Republican-dominated House after years of complaints from conservatives who see liberal bias in programs carried by the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. Broadcasters noted, for example, that the 25 percent cutback in next year's CPB budget was a rollback of money that Congress had promised in 2004.
PBS, in particular, drew harsh criticism in December from the Bush administration for a "Postcards From Buster" episode in which Buster, an animated rabbit, "visited" two families in Vermont headed by lesbians. And programming on both PBS and NPR has come under fire in recent months from Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of the CPB, who has pushed for greater "balance" on the public airwaves.
A spokeswoman for NPR, Andi Sporkin, directly blamed Tomlinson for yesterday's action, saying, "We've never been sure of Mr. Tomlinson's intent but, with this news, we might be seeing his effect."
Tomlinson did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement, he said, "Obviously, we are concerned [by the cuts], and we will be joining with our colleagues in the public broadcasting community to make the case for a higher level of funding as the appropriations measure makes its way through Congress."