For an industry that has “elitist” planted on its back like a hard-to-reach sticky label, the most critical piece of public broadcasting’s campaign to save itself may be the grassroots response.
Opponents of CPB funding in Congress complain they’re swamped with calls and some charge that pubcasters, because they get federal funds, can’t legally lobby. Stations argue that they are within their rights as long as they don’t use federal money to lobby.
When constituent calls and letters reach a “critical mass,” they penetrate
even the toughest mind-sets in Congress, said Bond. “Constituents always can make a difference. If we can change someone’s position, that’s the best we can hope for, to send the signal that this is not worth bloodying your hands for.”
Several stations report that their alerts about Republican plans to zero out, privatize or cut the funding of CPB have prompted hundreds–in Los Angeles, thousands–of viewers and listeners phoning to request addresses of members of Congress. People for the American Way’s direct-mail campaign to save federal funding of public broadcasting took in 10,000 postcards, since delivered to the House of Representatives.
But from Capitol Hill are coming mixed signals about the volume of constituents’ calls and letters.
Dick Wadhams, an aide to Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), for example, said calls and letters haven’t approached the level Burns saw last summer on two hot-button issues–the crime bill and health care reform, he said. “Literally every office Sen. Burns had (there are eight) was inundated. It was the only issue [constituents] talked about–health care or the crime bill. We haven’t seen anything like that on public broadcasting. It hasn’t even come close.” Burns, who sits on the Senate communications subcommittee, was one of the seven “stealth” senators who held up the reauthorization of public broadcasting in 1992.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s spokesperson Mindy Rossi, on the other hand, said the office has received “hundreds and hundreds” of calls–all in support of public broadcasting, except for one. The West Virginia Democrat, husband of WETA President Sharon Rockefeller, is an outspoken supporter of the field and a member of the Senate communications subcommittee.
In a survey last week of the offices of 39 New York, Connecticut and New Jersey Representatives, Friends of WNET found few tallies of calls and letters pertaining to public broadcasting. Those offices that offered numbers averaged 40 or 50 letters.
That’s a respectable response in the view of some congressional staffers. A spokesman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said the five to 10 calls his Hartford office receives in a day “is not a small amount. It means something to us. It takes a lot to make a phone call. We’re getting the same number on the balanced-budget amendment.”
Regardless of how one looks at the current numbers, the potential for response is huge. APTS counts 5 million people nationally who make voluntary contributions to public TV. Audiences are larger still. NPR said member stations draw 15.8 million listeners a week.
Every congressional staff member insists the boss takes every constituent contact to heart. But, some staffers are being vague about the number of calls and letters they have gotten in support of public broadcasting. Spokespeople in the offices of Sens. Burns, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Wendell Ford (D-Ken.), who all sit on the Senate communications subcommittee, and Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, all said they’d gotten letters and calls, but wouldn’t qualify or quantify.
And in mid-January, newspapers reported that Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who has been unremitting in his attack on public broadcasting, said he had gotten no letters in support of public broadcasting. Asked about that comment during a speech at the National Press Club, PBS President Ervin Duggan said he would be happy to provide “copies which have gone astray but which have come to me,” according to the Washington Post. Recently, a Pressler staff member told WNET Friends President Beverly Lundquist that the office had received many communications on both sides of the funding issue.
There are also reports that some of public broadcasting’s detractors brush off the letters, saying they are predictable, organized responses to necessary budget cuts. A Republican independent TV producer who visited several moderate Republican members of Congress last month said the lawmakers were “upset” over the lobbying issue and because “these letters are kind of … an obvious letter-writing campaign that was orchestrated.”
“We’ve received some phone calls and letters,” said Wadhams. “But that happens on every front as the budget is being debated, whether its Amtrak or the forest service. Public broadcasting is one of many federal programs.”
“I’m quite confident there will be moves by supporters of PBS to contact the delegation,” he said, adding that Sen. Burns always has supported public broadcasting, but now is most interested in “making reforms in how we spend money.” Burns has not said he wants to see public broadcasting eliminated, he said.
WNET’s Lundquist, who is president of National Friends of Public Broadcasting, contends that the grassroots response represents democracy at work, and is authentic and spontaneous. “In terms of sending along precanned letters, we [Friends of WNET] have not done any of that. Whatever is coming to Congress has truly come from the heart.”
What’s more, laypeople started the push to save public broadcasting’s federal contribution, she said. “We were slow to respond. People started to call us before we had done anything, because of what was in the news, the threats in the media about zero funding. The people were ahead of us.”
A number of congressmen have been annoyed by the pro-CPB mail and asked pubcasters to “call off their dogs,” according to people who have visited with them. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Livingston (R-La.) complained during a House hearing about frantic callers responding to a “tag line” about threats to Big Bird, in which New Orleans station WYES invited viewers to call the congressman’s office.
WYES General Manager Randall Feldman said there was no video crawl, but he did air a series of six spots that said the station might cancel some programs due to federal funding cuts. The spot cited by Livingston warned that early morning broadcasts of Barney & Friends, Lamb Chop’s Play-along and afternoon and evening classic movies might be ditched.
“I never said Big Bird will die,” Feldman reported. “Our obligation as a public television station is to inform. [If] we’re going to lose 14 percent of our budget, I am obligated … to let people know.”
WYES eventually asked viewers to call the station and vote on federal support for public broadcasting. The survey showed 67 percent in favor of continued funding, he said.
When constituent calls and letters reach a “critical mass,” they penetrate even the toughest mind-sets in Congress, said People for the American Way’s Jill Bond. “Constituents always can make a difference. We can’t necessarily change someone’s mind, but if we can change someone’s position, that’s the best we can hope for, to send the signal that this is not worth bloodying your hands for.”
“To the extent we can accomplish that through mobilizing the grassroots, I measure that a success.”
People for the American Way got into the fight in a big way, with a massive mailing that garnered 10,000 postcards from members who support public broadcasting. It packaged and delivered the cards to each office in House last week. It is planning a second mailing, with another postcard cut-out, to 50,000 supporters.
Bond and others say they see House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s apparent softening of his position on zeroing out CPB as a positive sign. Gingrich said at a National Republican Congressional Committee dinner that “he should have made it clear that he was not pushing for the end of public television,” according to the Associated Press. Republicans will continue public broadcasting going “in such a manner that the taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidize a billion-dollar-a-year program,” he said.
Bond said the speech is a hopeful sign– “an indication our efforts are working.”
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Is it illegal for public broadcasters to lobby on behalf of CPB funding, as some opponents of the subsidy contend?
Pubcasters say the law clearly states they are allowed to lobby as long as they don’t use federal funds to do it. “Broad statements that it is illegal for public television stations to lobby are totally fallacious, designed to create an appearance of impropriety where none exists,” says Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, general counsel of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS).
Local restrictions may prohibit stations from lobbying, although she knows of none, says Mohrman-Gillis. “We ask everyone to check with their own attorneys,” says APTS spokesperson Nancy Neubauer.
Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, raised the issue during a hearing Jan. 19. He complained about spots on New Orleans station WYES warning that programs such as the early morning broadcast of Barney & Friends might be cancelled if CPB loses funding. Citing Section 509(B) of the 1993 Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which says no part of public broadcasting’s federal subsidy can be used to influence legislation, Livingston said “a lawyer would suggest the law is being violated.”
He also suggested the station was violating laws requiring “equal time.”
A week later, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) sent more than 200 questions to CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen, several pertaining to lobbying. He asked: how much has been spent to generate support for continued federal funding and how much to present the ‘other side'; for an accounting of all lobbying money used by any television entity, including APTS, NPR and the Children’s Television Workshop; for lists of all lobbying efforts by CPB funding recipients, all on-air campaigns, use of mailings and program guides, all news coverage and interview programs, paid consultants, and several other questions. Pressler chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and is leading an effort to privatize public broadcasting.
Although Livingston said during the hearing that the lobbying issue was a legitimate area of inquiry, he later indicated he wouldn’t push the matter. “My boss said, ‘I’m not necessarily going to pursue this, but it definitely is going to be brought out,’ ” said a Livingston staffer. “Our focus is on the budget.”
Memos pertaining to what stations can and can’t do in the lobbying arena have been circulating. APTS and PBS declined to release their messages to stations. CPB had issued a brief memo Jan. 13 and 17, reminding stations not to use federal monies for lobbying. “Please be sure that you account for any such expenditures in a way that would allow an auditor to verify that CPB funds were not used for them,” said the memo from CPB Executive Vice President Bob Coonrod.
But while the law prohibits stations from using federal funds to lobby, so long as they have enough money to cover the costs of lobbying they are not required to prove they only used private funds, says Mohrman-Gillis. The regulations “do not impose any specific accounting measures,” because they would be too burdensome, she says.
Under public charities lobbying restrictions, stations have a cap on what they can spend for lobbying, but stations comply with the cap, she said.
Livingston’s comments pertaining to “equal time” seemed to be a reference to the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC abolished years ago. Similar FCC rules today apply only to some on-air appearances of political candidates, sources say. WYES General Manager Randall Feldman says he has invited Livingston twice to appear on the air, but has received no response. He also said that in two faxes he sent to Livingston before the House hearing, he explained no federal funds would be used for the on-air appeals.
The mini-furor over lobbying also raised some questions about pubcasters’ right to “editorialize.” In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that an existing ban on editorializing that applied to noncommercial stations violated the First Amendment rights of public stations licensees, according to communications law scholar Herb Terry. Congress repealed the ban in 1988, he said.
WSFP-TV in Bonita Springs, Fla., had a viewer threaten to file a complaint with the FCC because he believed the station’s on-air spots violated a ban on editorializing. Programming Director Terry Dugas says he has no idea if the viewer did actually file. He said in WSFP’s spots, the station encourages viewers to contact Congress whether they favor or oppose continued federal funding of CPB. In addition, “none of the money to use the spots, from the salary of the g.m. to the money it takes to pay for electricity to run transmitter, came from the from the federal government,” he said.
WYES’s Feldman says he believes the industry will be hard to tarnish. “Public television is a very clean medium. It just doesn’t have a lot of scandals floating around. We do wear the white hats. We try to be as scrupulous and ethical as possible.”
Copyright 1995 American University