PBS faces new threat in federal budget

By Elizabeth Jensen

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, Feb. 27 2011 7:44 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — In 1995, Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House, failed in his attempt to eliminate federal financing for public broadcasting, thwarted by the timely appearance of "Sesame Street" characters and by panicked supporters who filed petitions and flooded congressional offices with calls.

Over the years, supporters' success at fending off proposed cuts became so predictable that to some it began to seem as though the broadcasters were crying wolf.

With the new Congress, Republicans again have made public broadcasting a target for cuts, and the petitions and on-air appeals are back. This time, however, even a recent Capitol appearance by Arthur, the booking-loving aardvark, may not be enough to fully stave off a reduction in financing.

Mike Riksen, NPR's vice president of policy and representation, told member stations in January that a confluence of events — the growing deficit, questions about the role of the government in media, budget concerns on both sides of the political aisle, and in both houses, objections to a perceived left-wing bias — had created "the most determined, organized and sophisticated challenge to federal funding for public radio — ever."

Underscoring that assessment, on Feb. 19, the House approved a bill for 2011 that cut all financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the year 2013, the first time in recent memory that such a zeroing-out measure passed a vote.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said recently on "The Diane Rehm Show" on NPR that public broadcasting's audience, "I think, are discerning viewers who understand frankly, we've got ourselves in a mess as a nation fiscally and that we're going to have to make some tough decisions."

Even moderate Republicans who once were reliable backers of federal financing for public broadcasting have offered little support. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who is co-chairman of the Public Broadcasting Caucus, said in an interview that "this is the first time I've been unable to find a Republican to co-sign a letter with me just laying out the concerns."

The Democratic-controlled Senate is certain to push back this week, and President Barack Obama has already proposed a 2012 fiscal year budget that includes an $6 million increase to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's basic appropriation, for a total of $451 million. But a collective $75.8 million for other public media initiatives, like the Department of Education's Ready to Learn program, was eliminated from the president's budget. House Republicans, meanwhile, have already proposed a handful of other bills to eliminate or reduce financing.

Among those leading the fight to preserve financing are Patricia S. Harrison, the corporation's president and chief executive, and Patrick Butler, the new president and chief executive at the Association of Public Television Stations.

Harrison a former State Department appointee and former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, was assailed by liberals when she was named in 2005 by Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who was board chairman at the time and had been pushing NPR and PBS to add more conservative voices to their lineup. At the time, the media advocacy group Free Press said her "close ties to the leadership of the Republican Party represent a new low in public broadcasting history."

But in the intervening years, Harrison has silenced some critics by financing such partisan-neutral efforts as the oral history program StoryCorps, regional reporting projects based at public radio and television stations, and a major coming initiative to reduce the number of high school dropouts. "I never would have taken this job if I hadn't been willing to fight for public media," she said in an interview.

One of Free Press's founders, Josh Silver, said in a telephone interview, "The public interest community has been pleasantly surprised by what a fierce defender of public broadcasting she has been over the years, and an innovator."

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