By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Angered that the Smithsonian Institution sold a television network access to its treasures without consulting Congress, two influential members of the House have asked for a public airing of the business deal.
The two lawmakers, who oversee the Smithsonian's appropriations, are also displeased that the institution refuses to make the contract public.
The contract between the Smithsonian and Showtime Networks has generated considerable criticism in recent weeks from documentary filmmakers and historians, mainly because of new restrictions on access to Smithsonian archives.
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, in his first public comments on the Showtime matter, defended the agreement and said the contract has a "confidentiality provision."
This is the first public rebuke from Congress about the deal, which was announced last month. In a letter to Small, the congressmen warned that they are monitoring all future agreements, especially ones that "appear to essentially sell access to Smithsonian resources." A spokesman for Showtime said the network would not respond to the letter because it was addressed to the Smithsonian.
The April 27 letter from Capitol Hill, released yesterday, was written by Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee that approves the federal appropriation to the Smithsonian, and Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee. The panel is currently considering a $644.4 million appropriation for fiscal 2007. The Smithsonian receives about 70 percent of its funds from the government.
"The Subcommittee requests the Board of Regents to immediately review this contract to determine whether it violates the spirit if not the letter of the Smithsonian Trust and to consider changes to the contract which would fully guarantee that its terms are limited to a narrow set of programs," the letter said. Taylor and Dicks also said they objected to the restrictions on "legitimate commercial filmmakers who we believe have the right to reasonable access to the collections and staff."
In a written response, released last night, Small defended the venture and said the regents would review the "issues you have raised regarding reasonable access to collections and staff."
He argued that the television deal would bring the Smithsonian to many more people than are able to visit the Mall. "The venture provides an unprecedented opportunity for the Smithsonian to expand exponentially its ability to reach the public with information about our collections and activities, at no cost to us," he wrote.
The contract, according to Smithsonian officials, creates Smithsonian on Demand, an outlet that will produce 100 programs a year. The programs will use Smithsonian materials and experts, and the shows will be available, starting in December, to households with digital cable TV.
Because of the vastness of its archives, the Smithsonian is a popular resource for researchers, authors and filmmakers. The Smithsonian says the archives will be fully available to news and public-affairs teams as well as noncommercial organizations. But the Smithsonian will decide which commercial requests for more than "incidental use" of the archives will be approved.
The congressmen suggested that the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the policy and oversight board chaired by Chief Justice John Roberts, review the whole matter at its May 8 meeting. Taylor and Dicks also said Small should put together a public forum, and Small said in his letter that the regents would consider the suggestion.
The congressmen urged that the meeting include "an opportunity for public testimony, to analyze the issues surrounding financial agreements which appear to provide exclusivity or significant limitations on access to Smithsonian collections, which are by definition the property of all of the people of the United States."
The congressmen were worried that the contract "crosses the line" for a public institution's business deal, according to congressional sources. The sources said that Taylor and Dicks thought the Smithsonian had been "nonchalant" in its public responses so far on the matter.
"In addition to our concern about this particular contract, we would be concerned about any future agreements that are negotiated in secret, without Committee consultation, which commercialize Smithsonian resources or which appear to essentially sell access to Smithsonian resources," said the letter.
Taylor and Dicks, at an Appropriations hearing last month, said repairs needed for the Smithsonian are a high priority for Congress. But in their letter, they said, "While the Committee recognizes that budget shortfalls, in particular the need for funds to repair and maintain an aging infrastructure, require the Smithsonian to be aggressive and imaginative in its fund raising, these actions are often controversial and raise the risk of damaging both Congressional and public support for the Institution."
The protests against the Showtime contract have included a coalition of 215 filmmakers and historians, the American Historical Association, Society of American Historians, Society of American Archivists, American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries.
In his letter to Congress, Small said, "The fear the Smithsonian is curtailing or constraining the work of historians and documentary researchers seeking to use the collections is unfounded."
He also responded to Carl Malamud, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who raised a number of issues in a letter signed by actress Anna Deavere Smith, filmmakers Ken Burns and Michael Moore, and dozens of others.
To that group, Small argued that filmmakers would benefit from the production entity and that the Smithsonian had the right to exercise controls of the material so it wouldn't be competing with itself.
"The joint venture," he said, "will provide millions of dollars of incremental income to the very community you fear will be discouraged from creating projects."