WETA, Washington's biggest public broadcaster, said yesterday that it had exchanged donor lists with the Democratic National Committee, a disclosure that comes amid a budding controversy over public stations' fund-raising ties with the DNC.
Congressional Republicans already are angry at WGBH, the Boston public TV station, which recently revealed that it exchanged membership lists with the DNC on two occasions. Yesterday, a key Republican predicted that public broadcasting's federal funding would be cut as a result of the flap.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who heads the subcommittee overseeing public broadcasting, said he would discuss rolling back a proposed $300 million outlay for hundreds of public radio and TV stations to an unspecified level. "I am frankly of a mind to support [reduced funding] from what I've seen in Boston," he said.
Conservatives have attacked public broadcasting for years over TV and radio programs deemed to have a liberal slant. Now, public broadcasting's fund-raising methods are providing fresh ammunition to the same critics.
Like many public stations, WETA sells lists of its donors, or "members," to other organizations. It also trades these lists for those kept by other organizations.
WETA spokeswoman Mary Stewart said the station has exchanged lists with the Democratic National Committee, but she didn't know how many names were involved or how frequently the exchanges took place. While there haven't been any exchanges with the Republican National Committee, she said the station has provided lists to conservative organizations, including groups she identified as Great American Republicans and the Patriotic Veterans Association.
Asked if viewers of WETA or listeners of WETA-FM were aware of the list exchanges, she replied, "They may not. You can check a box on some of our solicitations" to prevent your name from being given out, "but not all of them" have such a feature.
Added Stewart: "Our policy has been the same for 20 years. We trade lists with a variety of organizations, from all walks of life. We trade with both liberal and conservative groups. . . . If this is becoming a concern on Capitol Hill, we will reevaluate our policy."
Other major public TV stations say they prohibit list exchanges with political organizations. But those policies appear to have been violated. WGBH acknowledged exchanges with the DNC following reports in May that a 4-year-old boy had received a fund-raising pitch from the Democratic Party after his mother made a donation to the station in the name of her son, a fan of public TV's "Barney & Friends." Yesterday, WNET in New York said it had exchanged lists with both Republican and Democratic organizations, which a spokeswoman, Stella Giammasi, said she could not identify.
WNET's exchanges were made by an independent list broker "without our knowledge," said Giammasi, who said the broker had been fired.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's fund-raising and campaign arm, said the disclosures raise questions about public broadcasters' standing as tax-exempt organizations.
"This not only jeopardizes their tax status, it puts their whole [federal] funding program in jeopardy, and that's unfortunate," he said. "I'm hopeful this can be resolved in a constructive way so Big Bird can remain on the air."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.