Accuracy in Media

Washington Post columnist David Broder has let the cat out of the bag about the recent House vote to restore $100 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting budget. As he put it, the “price will be paid, as is so often the case in today’s Washington, by the people who depend on government help for essential health care and education and job-training services.” That’s right-House members who voted for the money for public broadcasting were taking it away from some of America’s neediest people.

By putting $100 million back into the CPB budget, the House members had to cut somewhere else. That is the nature of the budget process. In this case, liberal Democrats were leading the charge to help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Why wasn’t this big news in Washington? 

The secret is out: public broadcasting is a plaything of the rich and famous. Reporter Merrill Balassone of the Los Angeles Times recently noted that the audience for taxpayer-funded National Public Radio is “fairly upscale” and that “The median income of an NPR listener is $89,989.” These are people who could clearly afford to pay for NPR themselves. But they must figure why should they do that when liberals in Congress are willing to soak the taxpayers for a subsidy.

Broder commented that it was true that “the broadcast stations and their audiences have far more influence on Congress than most low-income Americans possess.” He quoted Rep. David Obey as saying that “the people who pay attention to public broadcasting do have a megaphone of sorts, and they can get their message known.”

But wait. Isn’t this a taxpayer-financed megaphone? And isn’t there a law against using federal funds to lobby the federal government?

This is the bigger story-that NPR, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and various CPB-funded public radio and TV stations may have engaged in illegal lobbying against the proposed $100-million cut in federal funding of public TV and radio.

31 USC, Section 1352 prohibits the use of federal funds to engage in lobbying the federal government. This “Limitation on use of appropriated funds to influence certain Federal contracting and financial transactions” states that “None of the funds appropriated by any Act may be expended by the recipient of a Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement to pay any person for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with any Federal action described in paragraph (2) of this subsection.” Section 2 refers to (A) The awarding of any Federal contract, (B) The making of any Federal grant, (C) The making of any Federal loan, (D) The entering into of any cooperative agreement, or (E) The extension, continuation, renewal, amendment, or modification of any Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, June 21, 2005, page C-1, that “Faced with impending federal budget cuts, public TV and radio stations around the country have taken to their airwaves to highlight the situation. In ads airing during prime-time hours, the stations are urging viewers to call members of Congress to tell them how they feel about the impending loss of more than $100 million in federal funds for the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and hundreds of public radio and TV stations.”

The Post added that, “Similar spots are running on at least 90 of the 175 licensed public TV stations across the country, according to the Association of Public Television Stations, a Washington-based lobbying organization that is coordinating the effort. ‘Almost all’ of the 780 public radio stations affiliated with NPR are posting appeals on their Web sites or airing ads, according to NPR.”

The Post called this an “unusual advocacy campaign.” But it may be more than that; it may be a violation of federal law prohibiting recipients of federal funds from using those funds to lobby for more taxpayer dollars.

Indeed, the Post reported that Jeffrey Chester, who heads a Washington organization called the Center for Digital Democracy, warned public TV and radio against doing what they were doing. The Post said that because the stations receive government money, he believes “there needs to be some things off-limits, including the lobbying of Congress and other lawmakers” over the airwaves. Chester said that, “The stations are obviously feeling desperate and are using all the resources at their disposal. But they should be wary about crossing the lobbying line…I would say the stations are making a political mistake using their airwaves to lobby.”

But it appears to be much more than a political mistake. This lobbying should be immediately investigated as a direct and blatant violation of federal law.

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