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Originally published Monday, June 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

"Disastrous" bill would cut public-broadcasting service

If you can't join 'em, lick 'em. That seems to be the Republicans' final solution for public broadcasting. Last Thursday night, the House...

Seattle Times TV critic

If you can't join 'em, lick 'em. That seems to be the Republicans' final solution for public broadcasting.

Last Thursday night, the House Appropriations Committee approved a 2006 fiscal spending bill. According to Congressional Quarterly, it would cut 23 percent of funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which gives money to PBS, NPR and member stations.

The proposed bill rolls back a 2004 appropriation and reduces CPB's budget by $87 million, to $300 million. It also would eliminate all money for PBS stations to convert to digital and for PBS' "Ready to Learn" early-learning service for children.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the committee's ranking Democrat, told Congressional Quarterly that the proposal was "disastrous for public broadcasting as we know it."

Closer to home, Seattle's KCTS-TV and Tacoma's KBTC-TV are holding a joint press conference at 10 a.m. today to call attention to the impending plight of local stations.

Bill Mohler, president and CEO of KCTS, said the loss is most likely to hurt production and local outreach for children's shows, which get less corporate underwriting despite their critical acclaim and hallowed place in PBS programming.

"This is very, very troubling to me," said Mohler. "I can't believe that people would want to strike out like this. It's really punitive, especially to reach into an appropriation approved by a prior Congress."

Hard to believe, maybe, but not hard to conceive. In 1995, Republican and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich led an unsuccessful effort to ax funding for CPB.

There are significant differences this time around. GOP conservatives have been savvier in conducting a multi-pronged assault on public broadcasting, from attacks on PBS and NPR content to attempts to install their own leadership at CPB.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the Appropriations chairman, said last week that the cuts had nothing do with targeting public TV or radio. He pointed out that the entire bill — which includes spending for labor, health and human services and education — contains reductions.

Sure. While we're in the counting House, it's worth noting that the present CPB budget costs American citizens just over $1 apiece a year.

Whatever Regula's intentions, the bill comes after months of mounting criticism from conservatives that have often had an orchestrated appearance — even as poll after poll shows that public television has some of the highest credibility ratings with the public.

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The first target was Bill Moyers' allegedly liberal tilt on "Now." Moyers departed in December. Then a pair of lesbian moms on "Postcards from Buster" drew outrage. Next it was two "Frontline" broadcasts in which U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq used naughty words.

PBS tried to accommodate.

Instead of airing the disputed "Buster" episode, it left the choice to individual stations. It aired expurgated versions of the "Frontline" programs, again leaving it to local stations to choose the original version. (Note: KCTS ran "Buster" and the nonbleeped "Frontlines.")

PBS President Pat Mitchell went further. She gave shows to conservatives Tucker Carlson and Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot. She announced public television would hire an ombudsman to address the issue of balance.

While all this was going on, the CPB board was being reshaped by Republican hands — to an extent that even CPB's board apparently didn't realize.

Last Monday, The New York Times broke the story that CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, a Republican elected by the board in 2003, secretly hired an outside consultant to monitor Bill Moyers' "Now" for "anti-Bush," "anti-business" and "anti- (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay" bias.

Wisconsin's Obey and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., have called for an investigation by CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz.

They also want Konz to check out reports that Tomlinson told members of the Association of Public Television Stations at a meeting of TV and radio executives last November that they needed to include the November election mandate in programs.

CPB is supposed to be apolitical. The 1967 law that established it says so.

Now that Tomlinson has been caught maneuvering, it's hard to resist speculation that Republicans are using financial hardball to get public broadcasting to toe the line, or die.

They've timed their actions shrewdly.

The explosion in viewing choices since 1995 has made PBS vulnerable to critics who say that it's no longer vital or unique. Cable channels now crowd the field with quality offerings in traditional PBS bastions like children's shows and British imports.

Ratings and corporate funding also have declined since 1995, forcing public television to carry more "sponsorship spots" and dilute its identity as noncommercial. That's alienated some of PBS' staunchest viewers.

Still, PBS owns the claim to being independent of corporate interests. Its news and information programs — "Frontline," "American Experience," "American Masters" and "Nova" — have virtually no equal.

Many a parent still would rather plop his or her child in front of an afternoon of PBS programming than roll the dice with commercial alternatives.

Transcending these considerations is the democratic vision of a level viewing field. For people unable to afford cable, PBS is the only oasis of mostly commercial-free quality.

At the local level, value goes beyond the screen.

On $45,000 a year, KCTS' "Ready to Learn" program teaches parents and educators to support children's school readiness, promotes literacy and distributes thousands of free books to poor kids.

That could all go away under the proposed elimination of that program.

It's discouraging in this supersized financial era to have to fret over such piddling amounts. Being head of a public-TV station must really suck some days.

More depressing is the spectacle of PBS turned into a political football. Bias probably creeps into all forms of media as a matter of human nature. Yet how can anyone fault the service that public broadcasting has rendered for decades?

If public TV is killed, it'll be interesting to see what happens to that suddenly available broadcast spectrum. I expect sums far greater than $45,000 will be tossed around.

The appropriations bill moves to a full vote Thursday in the House. In July, the House and Senate conferees expect to meet to reconcile budget legislation.

Don't sit on your hands. Check out kcts.org, moveon.org, reclaimthemedia.org and commoncause.org for starters. E-mail your political representatives. Stop watching TV — just this once.

kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

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