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Conservatives Target Big Bird, Again

Local Matters


Published June 22, 2005 at 6:10 p.m.

VERMONT -- The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on a plan that would slash about one-quarter of all federal funding -- around $100 million -- for Public Broadcasting effective October 1. Last week, a House panel voted to eliminate all public funding for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service within two years. If approved by the Senate, those cuts would represent the most drastic reduction in federal funding for public radio and television since Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967.

Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television both receive money from the CPB through various funding streams. Among them are "community-service grants," which are matching funds based on how much each station receives from its audience. VPR stands to lose about $125,000 in community-service grants this year alone. VPT would lose between $175,000 and $200,000.

VPR President and General Manager Mark Vogelzang says that although the cutbacks wouldn't be immediately noticeable to listeners -- VPR only gets about 10 percent of its budget, or about $500,000 annually from CPB -- the loss of funding would prevent the station from adding more news reporters, upgrading aged equipment, or improving service in rural areas.

"For a small state, Vermont is incredibly supportive of public broadcasting," Vogelzang says of VPR's 23,000 members. Harder hit, says Vogelzang, would be stations in remote locations, such Alaska Public Radio, and those serving lower income communities, where listeners often can't afford to support public broadcasting. Such stations sometimes receive as much as 25 percent of their funding through CPB.

Over at VPT, President and CEO John King says it's premature to predict exactly how the cuts would affect public television in Vermont. But he admits they would have "a somewhat disastrous effect on us. Anytime you take $200,000 out of a $5.6 million operating budget, there would certainly be issues with programs and services, as well as staffing."

Congressional conservatives have been trying to kill CPB's federal support for more than two decades. But these latest cuts are even more drastic than those proposed in 1995 by Newt Gingrich and are widely seen as a political attack on the perceived liberal bias exemplified by series such as "Now with Bill Moyers" and "Frontline."

Recent polls indicate Americans widely see public broadcasting as far more impartial than other news outlets, especially since the federal "Fairness Doctrine" in broadcasting was abolished in 1987. In a survey conducted by the conservative Tarrance Group, 80 percent of Americans described PBS programs as "fair and balanced." More than half described its news coverage as more trustworthy than corporate news outlets such as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

Both King and Vogelzang emphasize Vermont's congressional delegation's historical advocacy of public broadcasting and adamant opposition to these latest cuts; Senator Patrick Leahy sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has the authority to restore the funds.