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Public TV eyes PAC to gain access to pols

Originally published in Current, June 30, 2003
By Dan Odenwald

Public TV advocates have begun research on creating a political action committee to aid allies in Congress. The PAC would be established independently of the stations and national organizations but would raise money from board members, station employees and friends of public TV, says APTS President John Lawson, who is helping to explore the idea.

A so-called "connected PAC" typically raises money from the employees and members of a corporation, union or trade association. In contrast, an "unconnected" PAC, such as the one proposed for public TV, is created and governed by volunteers. In that case, the PAC could be led by station board members, Lawson says.

Many nonprofits have their own PACs, according to APTS, including the National Organization for Women, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the American Arts Alliance.

A PAC for public TV could help pubcasters gain access to key legislators, Lawson says. It wouldn't have the size or scale to influence the outcome of elections, but it could be used to thank supportive members of Congress and to cultivate new allies, he adds.

The board of the PAC would establish criteria for making contributions. For example, it could give equal amounts to all candidates for a seat or split the contributions 60-40, the percentage used in the last cycle by the American Arts Alliance PAC.

Legislators spend significant parts of their weeks in fundraising events, which are open only to people who've contributed to their campaigns, Lawson says. These intimate affairs guarantee donors face time with legislators. It's an important part of the political process, he says.

APTS staffers--including Lawson and Jeff Bobeck, v.p. of government relations--currently pay their own way into those events. A PAC would allow public TV lobbyists to attend more events.

"Even a modest PAC could have significant impact in generating support for public broadcasting on Capitol Hill," Lawson says.
The National Association of Broadcasters and National Cable & Telecommunications Association have long used their PACs to gain influence on Capitol Hill. The NAB and seven major media companies donated $22 million to candidates from 1999 to 2002, according to Common Cause.

NAB's PAC regularly donates $4,000 to $5,000 a year to the re-election effort of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who oversees media laws, for instance, according to the Federal Elections Commission. This year, it also put up $2,500 for Edward Markey of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on Tauzin's communications subcommittee.

"On first blush, a PAC may seem to be inconsistent with public broadcasting, but in reality, it's not," says Kathleen Rae, director of government and external affairs for WNET, New York.

PACs are heavily regulated by the FEC, she points out. Only individuals can give to PACs, and their contributions are limited to $5,000 a year. PACs are not allowed to accept money from corporations, unions, associations or nonprofits and are limited in how much they can give to candidates. All donors and the amounts of their contributions are disclosed to the public.

Costs of playing the game

Even so, some pubcasters question the wisdom of playing the political access game. Some legislators may balk at the idea because public TV receives federal grants (though stations themselves would be forbidden to donate). And what if the PAC invested in a political candidate who lost? How vengeful would the winner be?

Creating a PAC might also lead to a perception of political bias, warns Jeanne Hopkins, v.p. of communications at WGBH. She's not opposed to the idea but worries about providing ammunition to public TV's opponents. Even supporters of public broadcasting might bristle at a PAC, she says. In dealings with them, Hopkins asks, would the PAC do more harm than good?

Before campaign finance reform, PACs carried a lot of negative baggage, Lawson says. But now they're the only legal way for groups of like-minded individuals to participate in elections financially, he adds.

Rae believes that a PAC could be useful in delivering public TV's message. Too often, criticism of PACs is based on unrealized fears, she says. Starting a PAC wouldn't necessarily sully public TV's reputation. "We need to participate in every aspect of political life," she adds.

Indeed, New York's pubcasters recently reinstated their PAC--Citizens for Public Broadcasting--after a year or so of dormancy, Rae says. An outgrowth of the state association of stations, the PAC has raised thousands of dollars to admit pubcasting lobbyists into political events. The bipartisan PAC gives money to both Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature who have supported public TV and radio, she says. The campaign contributions bought valuable access to powerful legislators.

If you leave the power of PACs to commercial broadcasters and even other nonprofits, they will always have the advantage, Lawson says. In the annual appropriations process, public TV must compete with education, health care and cultural organizations for funding--and they're all forming PACs, he says. "We owe it to the people we serve to look at every legitimate avenue to exercise influence," Lawson adds.

It's no shocker that political contributors get their phone calls returned, says Steve Bass, g.m. of Nashville Public TV and chairman of the APTS Board. He recalls a time when a Tennessee congressman wouldn't respond to repeated messages, so Bass asked one of his board members, who had contributed to the campaign, to make the call. "I had a meeting the very next day," Bass says.

A lot of pubcasters think a PAC is long overdue, and people seem more interested in taking the next step now, Bass says. "Our clout on the Hill is never going to be based on our PAC, but it's another tool in the tool bag," he adds.

Current's home page
Outside links: Center for Responsive Politics' list of media PACs, Federal Election Commission reports, Yahoo's partial list of misc. PACs.
   


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