Members of Congress used the threat of budget cuts in successfully pressuring the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to keep alive a television show that covered the congressional process favorably, according to the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review.
Shortly after the program, "The Lawmakers," began in the fall of 1981, Public Broadcasting Service stations began to complain that the series was too favorable to Congress and that audiences were tuning out. An independent panel advised the corporation not to fund the program again, the magazine reported.
But news that the program might be dropped met by strong congressional resistance.
For example, the House Appropriations Committee, in its funding report on the CPB, said, "Programs like 'The Lawmakers' . . . represent programming that serves the public well, and the committee encourages the corporation to continue its efforts in this regard."
Asked whether the CPB yielded to congressional pressure to continue producing the program, Ron Weber, the CPB vice president for corporate communications, said: "I can't honestly answer that. I wasn't even in the city when that was going on."
Weber said he could not name anyone at the corporation to answer questions on the issue.
A congressional staff member familiar with the issue said, " 'The Lawmakers' was canceled, and some House members got a little huffy over the fact that Congress [might] not be covered appropriately . . . . Congress threatened to cut the budget, and the program was then continued."
One source associated with the program said members of Congress decided on their own to write in support of the program and were not asked to intercede by members of the program's staff.
The source said that, after rumors surfaced about a possible cut in funding, many members of Congress asked if they could help. "They wanted to write letters on our behalf. We certainly did not discourage them," the source said.
One person formerly associated with the program said the Columbia Journalism Review article implied that "the idea behind the program was to win a more favorable attitude toward public television on Capitol Hill. That's outrageously untrue. The whole notion that we were patsies for [Congress] is absurd."
Paul Duke, who anchored the program, said he disagrees with the notion that the show was too favorable to members of Congress.
"Some felt we should be engaging in expose journalism, but we did not have a large enough budget for that kind of reporting," Duke said, adding that he and his reporters produced "tough personality profiles" and provided insightful coverage of behind-the-scenes warfare surrounding the voting-rights legislation passed by Congress in 1982.
He called the characterization of the program as too favorable to Congress "an insult to a lot of people who worked long hours with very little pay."
The question of possible political interference with public broadcasting has arisen in several administrations. President Richard M. Nixon, who tried unsuccessfully to cut all funding for public broadcasting and then established a board of loyalists to remove liberals from public television, was well known for his antipathy toward the CPB.
The Journalism Review suggested that members of Congress also tried to use the CPB for their own purposes.
The article quotes a 1982 letter from Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) to the president of a public television station and says a copy went to then-CPB president Edward J. Pfister. The letter said:
"Any attempt to remove the program from the air would fly in the face of congressional intent, both with respect to recent actions by Congress to increase funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and specifically regarding 'The Lawmakers' . . . .
"There were some in the House who believed that, by mentioning 'The Lawmakers,' the [Appropriations] Committee was engaging in precisely the kind of government interference for which President Nixon was criticized. However, I, along with a majority of my colleagues believed that . . . special mention was not only deserved but necessary."
The program was canceled in July 1984. After Congress began to consider a cut in the CPB's supplemental appropriation, the corporation approved a successor program, "Capitol Journal."
That series, anchored by former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, went on the air last March. Critics have described it as much tougher on Congress than its predecessor.