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PBS faces new threat in federal budget

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 2:39 a.m. MDT

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."

In a recent media blitz — corporation officials are officially prohibited from lobbying but not from making the case for public broadcasting — Harrison said that the late management guru Peter Drucker would approve of public broadcasters' frugal ways. She cited her experience running a small business as evidence that it was possible to cut too deeply, and equated public broadcasting to the Statue of Liberty, noting that even if Americans did not always visit, they wanted to know that it was there.

''It's not always about numbers," she said.

With 96 new House members and 20 new senators, Butler and Harrison say their biggest challenge is educating Congress. Butler, who began his job in January, had his duties expanded two weeks ago when the Association of Public Television Stations and NPR merged their lobbying efforts to create the Public Media Association.

To help with its efforts among legislators, the association has hired two Republican lobbyists. Nonetheless, Butler says his goal "is to make public broadcasting as American as apple pie," adding that "I don't want to make this a Democrat and Republican issue."

The fight over financing is likely to play out over the coming year, depending on how quickly Congress passes the 2011 budget and takes up the 2012 budget.

''I do believe in their heart of hearts they know it's a value and they know by getting rid of public media it's not going to make one iota's difference in the deficit, it's not going to create jobs, it's going to kills jobs," Harrison said. "I'm not irrationally exuberant, but I'm measuredly optimistic."

Blumenauer predicted that when the budget process was finished, "there may be some modest cut although the majority of the funding will be in place."

Gloomier assessments have speculated that broadcasters could lose as much as $100 million, or slightly less than 25 percent of what the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which disburses the money to public radio and television stations, received in the current fiscal year.

Paula A. Kerger, the president and chief executive of PBS, said that her organization had been fashioning various budget options to account for many possibilities. Under some, she said, initiatives she declined to name would be scaled back, but children's programming would probably be exempt.

Broadcasters are willing to take their lumps, Butler said. "We are not opposed to tightening belts here," he said, but added that cuts should be "something proportionate with what other people are being asked to do."

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