Opponents On Different Wavelengths

At a news conference Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) displays a poster of
At a news conference Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) displays a poster of "Sesame Street" characters being overrun by elephants. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

People who work in public television and radio bristle whenever they're accused of favoring liberal ideas and views over conservative ones. Public broadcasting, they say, is committed to presenting diverse opinions.

Yet as the House of Representatives prepares to vote on the biggest federal cutback ever for public broadcasting, there isn't much diversity to be found among the people on either side. The battle lines over public broadcasting have been drawn in sharply partisan fashion: Democrats in Congress and liberal organizations have emerged as public broadcasting's most visible and vocal supporters, while Republicans and conservatives have stayed mostly silent.

Among the groups that have been petitioning Congress on behalf of public broadcasting are a number with a history of liberal advocacy. These include People for the American Way, FreePress, Media Matters and MoveOn.org, which last year raised millions of dollars for ads critical of President Bush's reelection.

Democrats have taken the lead in trying to restore more than $100 million in funding that was cut by the Republican majority in a House committee last week. Democrats have also staged rallies to whip up public support. On Tuesday, some 16 senators -- all Democrats, Hillary Clinton among them -- advocated the removal of Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the conservative chairman of the agency that passes federal funds to public stations, saying he has politicized the nonpartisan Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And 20 House members -- all Democrats -- last week signed a letter denouncing Tomlinson's choice of Patricia de Stacy Harrison for CPB president, saying the former Republican National Committee co-chairman was "a partisan activist."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, it's hard to find a Republican with anything nice to say about National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service. Instead, they denounce them as liberal and elitist, when they bother to talk about them at all.

Public broadcasters point out that such nonpartisan organizations as the National PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have recently joined the fight on their side.

But the inability to find many friends across the aisle has been a source of frustration to broadcasters because they say it obscures the breadth of public backing and hardens the partisan lines. "We know there's Republican support out there, and we, too, are surprised that it hasn't been more vocal," said Lea Sloan, a spokeswoman for PBS, which is based in Alexandria.

Some supporters fear that the presence of liberal organizations could intensify the conservative caricature of public broadcasting. One public broadcasting official said he had "mixed feelings" about MoveOn's support, given its parochial leanings and its tendency to be a lightning rod for conservative criticism. "If I had a choice in life, I might pick a different organization" for help, said this official, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to alienate supporters.

In fact, MoveOn has been a formidable organizer; in just eight days, it has gathered more than 1 million signatures on a petition that asks members of Congress to oppose the budget cuts, which would amount to a 46 percent reduction in federal expenditures on public radio and TV next year.

MoveOn's executive director, Eli Pariser, said yesterday that his group hasn't asked for the political affiliation of those who have signed its petition, but he says he believes they span the ideological spectrum. "This is a classic issue where the Republican elite are totally divergent from their base," he said. "Their ideological fervor has taken precedence over what people want. People love PBS, they love 'Sesame Street,' they love NPR regardless of their politics."

Ken Stern, NPR's executive vice president, makes a similar point, noting that NPR listeners describe themselves as moderate, conservative and liberal in about equal measure in surveys. "The public response in the past few days has been extraordinary," he said. "It has changed the political dynamics of this issue."

But that isn't necessarily how prominent Republicans see public broadcasting. In a column in the Wall Street Journal, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote that "arguing over whether PBS is and has long been politically liberal is like arguing over whether the ocean is and has long been wet. Of course it is, and everyone knows it." Noonan advocated that Washington support public broadcasting -- but only if it drops its current-affairs programs and sticks to history and cultural fare.

Another Republican, a House aide, said yesterday that "NPR's liberal bent is obvious. There's a general lack of sympathy [among Republicans] for that reason." This aide, who asked not to be identified because his boss is trying to avoid publicly criticizing public broadcasting, recounted traveling through the South recently and hearing "six Christian radio stations and NPR. The contrast was obvious. There's a real cultural dissonance there."

Public broadcasters may yet win enough support, particularly from the Senate, which has historically been more generous than the House. In an action public broadcasters saw as a hopeful sign, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) on Tuesday voted to fully fund a $22 million program that subsidizes equipment purchases for public broadcasters. And Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) has signed on to an amendment sponsored by Democrats David Obey (Wis.) and Nita Lowey (N.Y.) to restore the money that was eliminated by the House Appropriations Committee last week.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company