The idea seems straight- forward enough: Two organizations that
rely on public donations to raise money agree to swap their
It happens all the time in the world of fund-raising. But when
one entity is a public TV station and the other is the Democratic
Party, such a swap can send more bad signals than a broadcast tower
in a hurricane.
Revelations that several public broadcasting stations have, in
fact, traded donor lists with political organizations are now
reviving a bitter debate over the role of public radio and television
In the GOP-led Congress, where the fight has been most intense,
news of list-exchanges with Democrats may jeopardize future federal
spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting - and has
provoked "I told you so" from those who have long insisted its
programming leans to the political left.
But even if it turns out that lists went to Republican groups as
well, lawmakers with their fingers closest to the purse strings are
resolved to ban the practice.
"Publicly financed nonprofit television and radio stations have no
business being involved in any way with partisan political
organizations," says Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R)
of Louisiana. Mr. Tauzin, who chairs the House Commerce
Telecommunications Subcommittee, led hearings July 20 on the list-
sharing flap, which now involves at least five stations in major US
markets. "It undermines ... trust in public broadcasting," Mr.
The controversy comes at a crucial moment for public broadcasting.
For the first time in five years, it was slated to see a funding
increase from Congress - a $50 million boost to help the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and more than 1,000 public stations
launch into the brave new world of digital transmission. On average,
15 percent of stations' budgets comes from taxpayer-supplied federal
funding, about 27 percent from state and local governments, 15
percent from the business community, and 22 percent from "viewers and
listeners like you."
In the week since House Republicans discovered that WGBH, a large
public TV and radio station in Boston, exchanged lists of donors with
the Democratic National Committee, similar practices have come to
light at stations from New York to Dallas. Perhaps drawing the most
ire was news that, in 1997, the reelection campaign for Sen. Barbara
Boxer (D) of California acquired a list of people who had contributed
to KQED, a public television station in San Francisco.
On radio shows and congressional phone lines, callers have
expressed outrage that their hard-earned dollars for Big Bird could
translate into political solicitations, Johnson says.
Carelessness or collusion?
But to some observers, the use and acquisition of donor lists do
not amount to partisan collusion, but rather carelessness in managing
fund-raising efforts. …