Public broadcasting stumbled by allowing its donor lists to be marketed to political organizations.
Average viewers or listeners may not be quite as infuriated by this disclosure as certain members of Congress who've long harbored hopes of taking the "public" out of public broadcasting. But many contributors are doubtless put off by the notion that their donation to a public station caused their names to be fed into the partisan fund-raising mill. Where's the presumed independence of an enterprise whose sole commitment is to high-quality programming?
The Republican lawmakers who have jumped most vigorously at the donor-list controversy deeply suspect a liberal, probably Democratic, bias in public-broadcasting ranks. The system's occasional forays into avant-garde programming, including dramas that break the old taboos, feed those suspicions. But critics would be hard put to find a clear partisan bent. Some long-running shows, such as William Buckley's "Firing Line," have had a strong conservative appeal.
Yet the critics are ever alert, which made the practice of swapping donor lists with political groups - no matter how commonplace in nonprofit circles - a major mistake.
What should be the consequences? Certainly not the step contemplated by some on the House telecommunications subcommittee - axing a chunk of the $300 million slated for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) next year. Shrinking federal funding has forced public stations into more and more vigorous fund-raising (including list-swapping) and corporate sponsorship quests.
Washington's contribution is roughly 15 percent of stations' budgets. Most Americans are glad to have their tax dollars so used - as outcries following earlier attempts to phase out all federal funding demonstrated.
Continuing public investment in CPB supports the independent, noncommercial flavor that millions of viewers prize. Now the public network must do its part and erase any taint of partisan involvement.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society