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Public broadcasting, Democrats, and 'the lists'

Furor over sharing donor lists threatens new funding for public radio and TV.

The idea seems straight- forward enough: Two organizations that rely on public donations to raise money agree to swap their contributor lists.

It happens all the time in the world of fund-raising. But when one entity is a public TV station and the other is the Democratic Party, such a swap can send more bad signals than a broadcast tower in a hurricane.

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Revelations that several public broadcasting stations have, in fact, traded donor lists with political organizations are now reviving a bitter debate over the role of public radio and television in America.

In the GOP-led Congress, where the fight has been most intense, news of list-exchanges with Democrats may jeopardize future federal spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - and has provoked "I told you so" from those who have long insisted its programming leans to the political left.

But even if it turns out that lists went to Republican groups as well, lawmakers with their fingers closest to the purse strings are resolved to ban the practice.

"Publicly financed nonprofit television and radio stations have no business being involved in any way with partisan political organizations," says Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana. Mr. Tauzin, who chairs the House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee, led hearings July 20 on the list-sharing flap, which now involves at least five stations in major US markets. "It undermines ... trust in public broadcasting," Mr. Johnson adds.

The controversy comes at a crucial moment for public broadcasting. For the first time in five years, it was slated to see a funding increase from Congress - a $50 million boost to help the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and more than 1,000 public stations launch into the brave new world of digital transmission. On average, 15 percent of stations' budgets comes from taxpayer-supplied federal funding, about 27 percent from state and local governments, 15 percent from the business community, and 22 percent from "viewers and listeners like you."

In the week since House Republicans discovered that WGBH, a large public TV and radio station in Boston, exchanged lists of donors with the Democratic National Committee, similar practices have come to light at stations from New York to Dallas. Perhaps drawing the most ire was news that, in 1997, the reelection campaign for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California acquired a list of people who had contributed to KQED, a public television station in San Francisco.

On radio shows and congressional phone lines, callers have expressed outrage that their hard-earned dollars for Big Bird could translate into political solicitations, Johnson says.

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Carelessness or collusion?

But to some observers, the use and acquisition of donor lists do not amount to partisan collusion, but rather carelessness in managing fund-raising efforts.

In the early 1990s, when congressional Republicans urged public broadcasters to be more business-minded about revenues, it "set off a kind of frenzied level of activity," leaving the door open to indiscriminate practices, says Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Media Education in Washington.

"The people raising the ruckus are longtime critics of public broadcasting," he adds. Some stations were careless, but "there is no close relationship between the Democrats and the public broadcasting system."

Presidents of CPB and other public broadcasting groups said last week they are ready to work with Congress to make sure stations do not buy, sell, or trade lists with partisan political groups. Some stations, such as WETA in Washington, have already created new policies.

Under direct-mail strategies, it is common to use a list broker to find new names. Organizations can pay a fee to mail to another group's list, buy a list of names, or offer their list in exchange. For public-broadcasting fund-raisers, any previous giving is a good indicator that someone may be willing to support the local station, says Mary Stewart, a spokeswoman for WETA-TV.

Until the recent policy change, up to 10 percent of the groups the station traded lists with were political. The station traded with both conservative and liberal groups, Ms. Stewart says, but the Republican National Committee's list was not available.

Representative Tauzin, though, suspects that some stations might be hiding behind their list brokers, Johnson says. Tauzin has called for an investigation into whether any stations violated laws that require nonprofit groups to be nonpartisan.

While the stations put themselves in a vulnerable position, public-broadcasting advocates say, the issue should not be used as a political tool to strip congressional support. "They can be chastened, but this must not be used as a partisan attempt to whittle back public broadcasting's independence," says Jerry Landay, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

The public speaks

It is not clear how the controversy will affect public support for tax-subsidized broadcasting. But when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) threatened to "zero-out" public broadcasting in 1995, people "wrote and called in unprecedented numbers ... and said ... we want you to rethink this," says Jeannie Bunton, a CPB spokeswoman.

In Tauzin's office, callers are reiterating that view even as they urge Congress to ensure that public broadcasting is not tainted with politics, says Johnson. But as for CPB's $300 million "wish list," he says, "as a result of this controversy, Santa Claus has left the building."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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