Public TV shelves proposal for PAC
APTS has decided not to help create a political action committee after station execs, Capitol Hill allies and NPR recommended against the idea.
“We found pretty divided sentiment within the industry and on the Hill,” said APTS President John Lawson. “Lots of stations and station board members thought it was necessary, but others were uncomfortable. The timing isn’t right,” he concluded.
By declining to organize donations to political candidates, as other constituencies do, public TV supporters will limit their ability to get what they want on the Hill, Lawson argued. But given the lack of consensus in the system, “the fight isn’t worth it right now,” he added.
Reaction to the PAC proposal came swiftly after the idea was floated this spring. In July, the NPR Board voted unanimously to reject the idea, stating “the act of soliciting and collecting funds to influence the outcomes of elections is not appropriate to the mission of NPR or public radio.”
Public radio would gain nothing from a PAC, said NPR President Kevin Klose at the time. 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, argued Mark Handley, NPR Board chairman and g.m. of New Hampshire Public Radio. A PAC would have threatened that credibility, he said. “It’s a step beyond what our constituents would be willing to accept.”
PBS Board members, including Washington insider Norman Ornstein and former Illinois Rep. John Porter, also opposed the PAC, though the board took no formal action on the proposal. “If you weigh the pluses and minuses, it’s not a good idea,” said Sharon Rockefeller, president of WETA, Washington, D.C., and chair of PBS’s Advisory Committee on National Policy Issues.
Rockefeller said it was a “difficult concept,” arguing that public broadcasting “takes the higher road.” A PAC wouldn’t help public TV’s position on the Hill or in general, she concluded.
Some pubcasters have toyed with creating a PAC for years, but the idea gained
currency when APTS and New York’s WNET began researching its practicality
some months ago.
APTS pointed out that many nonprofits work alongside PACs, including the National Organization for Women, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the American Arts Alliance.
Lawson had argued that a PAC could help pubcasters gain access to key legislators. The committee wouldn’t have had the size or scale to influence the outcome of elections, but it could have been used to thank supportive members of Congress and to cultivate new allies, he maintained.
The PAC proposed by APTS would have been established independently of the stations and national organizations but would have raised money from board members, station employees and friends of public TV.
In an October conference call, several PBS Board members expressed doubts that a PAC would help win influence with lawmakers.
“Unseemly,” says Porter
“Many people were surprised that public broadcasting was even thinking about forming a PAC,” said PBS Board member Porter. “It’s simply unseemly for public broadcasting to do that . . . and it wouldn’t advance the agenda one whit,” he added.
Lawson had argued that legislators spend significant parts of their weeks in fundraising events open only to campaign donors. These intimate affairs guarantee donors face time with legislators, he maintained.
APTS staffers—including Lawson and Jeff Bobeck, v.p. of government relations—now pay their own way into those events. A PAC would have allowed public TV reps to attend more events.
Lobbyists don’t get their message across by attending fundraisers, Porter countered. They do that by arranging meetings, sitting down with members and talking to them, he said. “[PBS President] Pat Mitchell can call and get an appointment whenever she wants,” Porter said. “She doesn’t need to buy access.”
Lawmakers are more than willing to meet with public TV and radio reps, Rockefeller added. “A major part of our job is keeping the Hill up to date on our activities,” she said. “We’ve never had any problem getting into offices.”
Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute as well as a PBS Board member, believes a PAC may do more harm than good. “For public TV to step into partisan politics in such an overt way is way too dangerous,” he said.
Public broadcasting has enough difficulty dealing with charges of ideological bias without having to confront charges of political bias as well, Ornstein added. “The ratio of risk to reward doesn’t make any sense.”
Nobody ever suggested a PAC would solve all of public TV’s problems, argued Steve Bass, g.m. of Nashville Public TV and chairman of the APTS Board. “This would have been another club in the golf bag.”
Bass criticized the “knee-jerk anti-PAC reaction” of the NPR Board and others. More thoughtful conversation within the system about the proposal ranged “all over the map,” he said. But the idea never developed traction and it became clear a PAC wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to make a difference, Bass added. Though many on the Hill cautioned against a PAC, he wondered whether those same people would refuse pubcasting supporters’ contributions to their fundraisers, he quipped.
“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,” Lawson argued during the debate over the PAC’s formation. If you leave the power of PACs to commercial broadcasters and even other nonprofits, they will always have the advantage, he added.
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 said. “We owe it to the people we serve to look at every legitimate avenue to exercise influence.”
Fans can still start a PAC
Supporters of public TV could still form their own “unconnected” PAC without the blessing of the national orgs, Lawson said. He said he would “neither encourage nor discourage” them from doing so.
But the need for a PAC remains, Lawson added. Without one, it puts a higher premium on stations lobbying on the grassroots level, acting through their boards to get what they want from lawmakers, he said.
In October, APTS launched a website, the Public Television Action Center, to mobilize grassroots supporters across the country “to fill the void created by the decision not to pursue a PAC,” according to APTS.
The site, at ga3.org/publictelevision,
will encourage fans of public TV to contact members of Congress when important
issues come up in Washington. In the project’s first phase, APTS will
invite station employees, partners and other stakeholders to sign up and write
Web page posted Dec. 18, 2003
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