NPR Board wants no part of TV's proposed PAC
The NPR Board has firmly refused to join public TV execs in establishing a political action committee to aid congressional allies of public broadcasting. In a unanimous vote at its meeting last month, the board said "the act of soliciting and collecting funds to influence the outcomes of elections is not appropriate to the mission of NPR or public radio."
"A person's ability to contribute to a PAC in support of a cause he or she believes in is an important First Amendment right," commented John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS). "We were surprised the NPR Board would be so quick to say that those rights should not be available to public radio supporters."
Public radio would gain nothing from a PAC, said NPR President Kevin Klose. NPR and its member stations are already "perfectly well-positioned with respect to Congress to advocate" on issues important to them, he said.
Most public radio stations are journalistic organizations that rely on their credibility to attract audiences, said Mark Handley, NPR Board chairman and g.m. of New Hampshire Public Radio. A PAC could threaten that credibility, he said. "It's a step beyond what our constituents would be willing to accept," he said.
If NPR endorsed a PAC, pubradio's political opponents could cite it as evidence that the network has political leanings, said John Keiser, NPR Board member and president of Southwest Missouri State University.
Public broadcasters have toyed with creating a PAC for years, but the idea developed new currency when APTS and New York's WNET began researching its practicality some months ago.
WNET ultimately decided not to pursue establishing a national PAC on its own--leaving the option to APTS--and resumed work on a state PAC along with New York's other PTV stations, said Kathleen Rae, director of government and external affairs for WNET.
The PAC under consideration by APTS would be established independently of it and other pubcasting organizations and would raise money from board members, stations' employees and friends of public TV, according to Lawson. It would be created and governed by volunteers.
Many nonprofits have corresponding PACs, according to APTS, including the National Organization for Women, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the American Arts Alliance.
A public TV PAC could help pubcasters gain access to key legislators, Lawson said. 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 added.
As PAC discussions progressed during recent months, Lawson kept NPR informed of APTS's deliberations, he said. He never invited NPR--or any other organization--to "join the PAC." It would be led by a volunteer force, not pubcasters themselves, he said.
Keeping a distance from TV
Though public TV and radio share much of the same agenda in Washington--chiefly, maintaining federal outlays for CPB and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program--there are differences in interests and strategies. "If a defining impulse separates APTS from NPR, [the PAC] is it," Klose said.
Public radio needs to create a distinct political identity separate from what public TV seeks on Capitol Hill, said Michael Riksen, v.p. for national affairs at NPR. As radio begins to make its case for digital conversion funding, pubradio needs to articulate its messages clearly, he said.
Riksen recommended moving NPR's annual lobbying days to May, three months after public TV reps comes to Washington. Last year APTS and NPR coordinated their lobbying confabs.
Handley admitted there's little NPR or public radio can do to stop the public TV PAC from becoming a reality, but he urged its leaders to disassociate themselves from public radio. "We need to be on the record that we see ourselves as being separate from this," he said.
Other organizations are distancing themselves from the PAC as well. Western States Public Radio said the idea runs "contrary to the goals and interests" of stations, according to John Stark, g.m. of KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Stations belonging to Public Radio in Mid-America said they had a "very negative" view of the PAC, according to Cleve Callison, g.m. of WMUB in Oxford, Ohio, who voiced his comments at the NPR Board meeting.
The PBS Board will discuss the PAC at an upcoming meeting of its national affairs committee, according to Wayne Godwin, c.o.o. CPB declined to comment.
Not all pubradio managers are dismissing the PAC, however. "I think it's unfortunate that the NPR Board acted so quickly and precipitously without engaging in more discussions with their colleagues in public TV," said Doug Myrland, g.m. of KPBS TV and radio in San Diego. He also criticized the board for taking action without consulting stations.
Public radio and TV aren't that different from one another, Myrland argued. Some managers in pubradio see the medium as more successful than public TV and want to keep TV at a distance, he said. But outside of Washington, few people see distinctions between public TV and radio, he added.
NPR shouldn't be afraid of engaging in the political process, Myrland said. It too often tries to "fly under the radar screen," he said.
But Handley thinks a PAC is too blunt an instrument of persuasion--especially when pubcasters can depend on the goodwill of millions of viewers and listeners. Public TV and radio have built up enormous social capital, and that is the system's wealth, not dollars, Handley said. When the system needs help--as it did when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led an effort to zero-out CPB funding in 1995--pubcasting fans pull through, he added.
Besides, most managers work hard to build good relationships with their congressional delegations, Handley said. If access to lawmakers is a problem, he recommends recruiting an influential board member or major donor to help establish the links.
A PAC could also drain contributions that would otherwise support station operations, he added. It's obvious the supporters of the PAC have the system's best interests in mind, but it's the unintended consequences they need to worry about, Handley said.
Mike Janssen contributed to this report.
Web page posted Aug. 4, 2003
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