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PBS TV Station President Warns CPB Funding Cuts Will Launch “Spiral of Death for Public Broadcasting”

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On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to drastically cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We host a roundtable discussion on the continuing fight over public broadcasting in this country with the presidents of two PBS stations as well as Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

We turn first to the continuing fight over public broadcasting in this country. Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to drastically cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is the US-tax payer funded agency that passes funds to public broadcasting stations in this country. The proposal to cut funding was authored by Ohio Republican Representative Ralph Regula and would eliminate $100 million in federal funding to CPB, 25% of the total allocation. Regula’s proposal also calls for all federal funding to the CPB to be eliminated in two years. The cuts, if passed, would represent the most drastic cutback of public broadcasting since Congress created the nonprofit CPB in 1967. Regula has defended the cuts as necessary to avoid reductions in federal support for vocational education, job and medical training.

And last week, it was reported that a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee is the leading candidate to take over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Patricia de Stacy Harrison is reportedly the favored candidate of the CPB’s Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson. Harrison is currently a high-ranking official at the State Department. She was co-chair of the RNC from 1997 until January 2001, helping to raise for Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.

And in the face of charges from CPB Chair Tomlinson that it is has a liberal bias, and threats to its funding from Congress, the Public Broadcasting Service on Tuesday adopted an updated set of editorial standards and announced that it would add an ombudsman who will report directly to PBS President Pat Mitchell.

  • Jeffrey Chester, Executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
  • Bill Reed, President of KCPT in Kansas City. He has been president for 13 years.
  • Trina Cutter, President & General Manager of PBS 45 & 49 which serves Northeastern Ohio, parts of western Pennsylvania and parts of northern West Virgina. She is also the vice-president of Ohio Educational Television Stations and serves on the national Small Station association Board.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone by Bill Reed, President of the KCPT, which is a public television station in Kansas City, Missouri. Also joined by Trina Cutter, President and General Manager of PBS 45 and 49 in Ohio. And in the studio in Washington, D.C., Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Jeff Chester, lets begin with you. Give us the lay of the land right now, the significance of this House Appropriations Committee cut.

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, Public Broadcasting is under attack from the Republican leadership on multiple fronts. House Republican leaders, in essence, are zeroing out federal support, which will hobble both PBS and NPR and all of the rest public media. The Bush White House meanwhile is silent while the Republican chairperson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, is doing his best to undermine that agency. He’s engaged in all kinds of nefarious dealings at CPB and intends to install his hand-picked Republican president next week.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about just who she is, and why does he get to decide who is President of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, first, I mean, he is running, unlike any other CPB Board Chair, he is actually running the agency day to day. Indeed, we are told he is making decisions about programming, which would be a violation of CPB rules. Those staff members, senior staff members, that disagree with Mr. Tomlinson are immediately dismissed or fired, such as the former president. He wants to put someone in there who will continue his policies of ultimately changing the direction of Public Broadcasting, particularly PBS, so that it no longer has the institutional will to do serious programming, especially in news and public affairs.

Meanwhile, I have to say that the two Democrats, and one Independent on the CPB Board are Ernest Wilson, Beth Courtney from Public Broadcasting and Vice Chair, Frank Cruz. Although it has been said that they may issue a statement, they have been silent. The Democrats and Independents on the Board have been silent, really, for the last two years while all of this has been going on, and it’s now time for the public to call on the CPB Board members, particularly those three, to stand up and protest as Tomlinson, because the rest of the GOP Board will do whatever he says, installs his candidate next Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, The New York Times reporting yesterday that investigators at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are examining more than $14,000 in payments made under contract to a man who compiled reports on the political views and backgrounds of guests appearing on the PBS program, “Now,” with Bill Moyers. The paper is saying that the CPB Chair, Kenneth Tomlinson, took the unusual step of signing the contracts personally. The Inspector General looking at the contracts signed by Tomlinson with a man named Fred Mann, to monitor the political leanings of “Now.” Mann is listed in the contract as living in Indianapolis, and officials at CPB say they knew nothing about him?

JEFFREY CHESTER: Yeah. Tomlinson has been engaged in all kinds of underhanded dealings without the knowledge of both the Boards of Directors, certainly the Democrats and Independents, and even the staff. He has hired these political consulting companies, we understand it’s the Alexander Group who actually engaged Brian Darling and also former John McCain aide, Mark Buse. He has created these contracts to do political work and even the former Head of Government Relations at CPB had no knowledge about what Mr. Tomlinson had been doing. It’s time for Congress, at least the Democrats, to call for a wider investigation into the underhanded dealings of Mr. Tomlinson.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the line by Bill Reed, President of KCPT in Kansas City. He’s been President there for 13 years. Bill Reed, your response to the House Appropriations Committee cut of, what is it, about $100 million?

BILL REED: Well, there are a couple of things that are very disturbing about all of this. One, over the years, we have enjoyed bipartisan support. Indeed, there would not be a KCPT in Kansas City if we didn’t have support from people from all political persuasions. So this kind of politicization of Public Broadcasting is very disturbing.

The cuts are more than just 25% for CPB. The cuts are also for interconnection, for PBS, for digital conversion, for the Ready To Learn Service that provides funding for children’s programming, and for teacher training. If you take into consideration all of those cuts for Public Television, it amounts to a 45% cut in our funding. A 25% cut in the Corporation’s funding for KCPT would really gut the organization. We get a community service grant that has about $900,000 out of a $7 million budget, and that is a significant reduction in an already lean budget that we’re operating on.

But it’s worse than that, because the smaller stations, stations serving rural America, get a much larger percentage of their funds through the Community Service Grant from CPB. Sometimes they get as much as 30-40, I think, even 50%. So, if you consider a station operating out there in the hinterlands serving a rural area at a million-and-a-half dollar budget, and they get a $600,000 or $700,000 budget cut as a result of these cuts, you are talking about disaster.

And once that starts to happen, once stations start to go off the air, those stations in the aggregate send money to PBS to support programming. So you have a double hit. You have the stations unable to support national programming, CPB unable to support it. That has an impact on membership. Pretty soon you have a spiral of death for Public Broadcasting.

I hope what’s happening — it’s been my kind of view that this is not a movement by the Republican Party, but a fringe group of Republicans in leadership positions in Congress to eliminate Public Broadcasting. And I’m hoping when this all shakes out that the bipartisan support we’ve had in the past will continue and right this situation in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Trina Cutter, President and General Manager of PBS 45 and 49, which serves Northeastern Ohio, parts of Western Pennsylvania and parts of Northern West Virginia. Also Vice President of Ohio Educational Television Stations and serves on the National Small Station Association Board. How did this happen? More than ten years ago when Newt Gingrich led the effort to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he and his colleagues in the Congress were beaten back by, well, none other than Ernie and Bert testifying before Congress. Most people don’t know these cuts are taking place now.

TRINA CUTTER: Right. I think it’s a real covert action. I think that leadership is trying to keep it sort of down. That’s why they’re saying it’s 25%. In reality, it’s more like 45%. And I think it’s a way to not get the American public really excited about it. I can imagine somebody calling their Congressperson and saying, you know, this is awful. I want to see funds restored for Public Broadcasting. You guys are, you know, planning on zeroing it out and regulating. And an article in the Canton Repository said, no, I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2008, really kind of downplaying it, so that people don’t get really excited about it like they did during the Newt Gingrich years.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Reed, this issue of why there was so much political activism then, and yet now most people would not realize the threat?

BILL REED: Well, I’m hoping they do. I mean, we’re going on the air telling our audiences about the threat and telling our audiences that they should call their Congressmen or Congressperson and call their Senators and let them know that they want funding for Public Broadcasting and they want the funding, the cut, to be restored. Do you know what we’re talking about? We’re talking about $1.20 per person in the United States of America to support Public Broadcasting. Now you compare that to other — you know, in England the per capita of tax for public broadcasting is over $100. And you know, the other, NHK, CBC, they all support their public broadcasting agencies fully. And it’s — I think it’s disgraceful that in the richest nation on earth and the greatest nation on earth, we can’t afford $1.20 per capita to support Public Broadcasting.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester of the Center For Digital Democracy, at the grassroots level, what is taking place right now? I mean, there has been pressure on PBS from other directions, as well, to be more responsive to people in their communities. Now, this other hit coming from another direction.

JEFFREY CHESTER: Well, look, there are groups that are trying to save Public Broadcasting. There’s Free Press, there’s Common Cause, there’s MoveOn, there are the children’s groups. People are rallying next week, I believe, on Tuesday as the full House may vote. There will be a kind of rally. People are going to try to generate attention. Clearly we have to resist this attack on public media, federally funded public media, in this country, but I have to say, it should be a wake-up call for everyone. PBS has lost, I think, significant support because, in fact, the kinds of programs that it should be doing, the kinds of hard-hitting, investigative reporting, for example, and community programming, more or less has disappeared on the system. Therefore, you don’t have the kind of support that you had ten years ago, so we all will do our best to beat this back, but we also have to begin the national conversation about reforming PBS, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Chester, I want to thank you for being with us. Bill Reed, from KCPT, thank you for joining us, and Trina Cutter, President and General Manager of PBS 45 and 49, thank you for joining us.

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