Democrats in Congress and supporters of public broadcasting say that pure politics, rather than budget considerations, led a congressional subcommittee to approve deep budget cuts to public television and radio this month. The plan includes the elimination of a Department of Education program that helps seed children’s educational TV shows.
“There are those in Congress who’ve wanted to eliminate public broadcasting for a long time, and the horrible deficit situation plus the perception that public broadcasting is divided right now has created an opportunity in their eyes to act now,” said John Lawson, the president of the Association of Public Television Stations, a Washington lobbying group for individual stations.
Under the cuts approved June 9 by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes federal money to public-television and -radio outlets, would decrease from $400 million this year to $300 million in fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1. The CPB provides a foundation of funding for basic operations for many stations, which allows them to pay dues for national programs that include the most popular educational shows.
The subcommittee’s bill also eliminated entirely the $23 million Ready to Learn program in the Education Department, which helps pay for a slate of popular children’s educational shows including “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “Sesame Street,” and “Postcards from Buster,” which drew criticism from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings earlier this year over an episode featuring two families headed by lesbian couples.
The full appropriations committee, which met June 16, approved all the cuts for fiscal 2006, but also approved an amendment from Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., to restore funding for fiscal 2008 that had been left out from the bill.
Since 1976, public broadcasting has been “forward funded” by two years to “provide a degree of insulation from the political currents of the day,” Mr. Lawson said.
Pat Mitchell, the president of the Public Broadcasting Service, said the cuts, if passed by the full Congress, could have a “severely detrimental effect” on children’s and prime-time programming.
Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the chairman of the subcommittee, said in a statement that its members had to make “tough choices by reconciling competing priorities with the resources available.”
“Choices are easy when dollars are plentiful, but that was not the case this year,” he said.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, an appointee of President Clinton’s to the CPB board, was named its chairman by President Bush in 2003. He vowed to rid public television of what he said was a perception that it was not politically balanced.
Some of his decisions since, including the hiring of a consultant to investigate the ideological leanings of the guests on one popular news show, have raised concerns of editorial freedom among public television officials.
Mr. Lawson said that the controversy over “Postcards from Buster” may have played into the decision to cut public-broadcasting funds.
“I know that there were some in Congress who were upset that PBS even considered airing a program that included a family headed by two mommies,” he said.
Mr. Tomlinson was not available for an interview, but in a statement posted on the CPB’s Web site, he expressed concern over the cuts.
“We will be joining with our colleagues in the public-broadcasting community to make the case for a higher level of funding as the appropriations measure makes its way through Congress,” he said.
Ms. Mitchell said in an interview that programs such as Ready to Learn are helping children learn to read, and helping their parents, caregivers and teachers prepare youngsters for success in school. (“Federal Grant Boosts Educational Television, Faces Fresh Scrutiny,” Feb. 9, 2005.)
“All of public broadcasting is working very hard right now to remind Congress how our programming and services support, rather than compete with, congressional priorities,” she said.