Public broadcaster WETA said yesterday it will stop exchanging lists of its members with the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations, in a move to head off criticism about the practice from Republican lawmakers.
Republican members of Congress this week vowed to cut federal support of public broadcasting after disclosures that public TV stations, including WETA of Arlington and WGBH in Boston, had shared or traded their donors' names with the DNC. The exchanges were made over several years as part of the stations' fund-raising efforts.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), whose House subcommittee oversees federal funding of public broadcasting, said the practice smacked of political partisanship, although the stations said they were merely trying to raise money and had exchanges at times with conservative groups, too.
It's not clear whether the practice is illegal. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes about $250 million in federal funds to public stations and the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, has asked its inspector general to investigate whether stations broke the law. The CPB is also surveying stations about their list-swapping practices for a report to Congress next week.
Tax laws prohibit a public broadcaster from sharing lists with political organizations or candidates unless the lists are made available on a nonpartisan basis, according to the CPB and station officials.
"We're no longer going to trade, sell or rent lists to campaigns, political parties or groups with an overt partisan mission," said Mary Stewart, a WETA spokeswoman. She said the decision was prompted by the criticism from Capitol Hill, and by concerns expressed by CPB, NPR, PBS and public broadcasting's lobbying arm, the Association of Public Television Stations. About a dozen WETA viewers and listeners complained to the station.
In addition to WGBH and WETA, New York station WNET has acknowledged trading names with the DNC over several years but not with the Republican National Committee. The RNC did not make its donor list available for exchange, according to the stations.
Tauzin's office said yesterday that it is examining records from three other publicly funded broadcasters for possible list swaps with the DNC: radio station WNYC-FM in New York, WTTW-TV in Chicago and KCET-TV in Los Angeles. The three stations are under scrutiny because they used the same independent list brokers as WETA, WNET and WGBH, said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.
"We're not leveling any accusations," said Johnson, "but we've been lied to once [WGBH initially denied its list swaps] and we're not taking anyone's word for it. . . . We're not out to burn anyone at the stake but if this is common practice we want to drive a stake through it. It's unethical, immoral and a stain on the political process. It implies a cozy relationship between recipients of federal funds and partisan political organizations."