Will politics put the squeeze on public TV's programming budget?
Public television, which narrowly escaped debilitating politicization during the Nixon administration, may be once again in danger of becoming entangled in American power politics.
On Oct. 19, President Reagan vetoed a public-broadcasting authorization bill for the second time in three months. It was a compromise bill, sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, one of public broadcasting's strongest supporters in government. The Reagan administration cutbacks previously voted threaten continuation of both current children's programming - such as ''Sesame Street,'' ''Reading Rainbow,'' and ''3-2-1 Contact'' - and future plans for additional shows.
Despite the Goldwater support, some Democrats believe the Reagan administration is trying to put pressure on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which receives the appropriations and then distributes funds to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR)) to influence the content of public-affairs programming on PBS, which many right-wing Republicans consider too liberal. There are also those who believe that Reagan supporters are putting PBS through the financial wringer to force public broad-casting to accept commercial advertising.
One Democrat at CPB, who declined to be named, told me that under Mr. Reagan, the makeup of the CPB governing board has become politicized to a point where ''there is constant block voting. There is now a 6-to-4 Republican majority and it always votes together. If they were to decide whether or not it's snowing in July, there would be six votes on one side. That has never been the case before.''
On the other hand, Republicans on the board insist that the present political ratio was reversed under the Carter administration. And there is no more block voting now than there there was then, they say. They insist that there has been no discernible Reagan pressure on PBS programming.
On Oct. 25, when this reporter first placed a telephone call to Sonia Landau, a Republican and the newly elected chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the CPB Washington office gave me another number at which to reach her. It turned out to be the headquarters of Women for Reagan-Bush, of which Miss Landau is also the chairman. She was not available, since she was in New Mexico on a speaking tour, campaigning for the Reagan-Bush ticket, although I did speak to her later.
Meantime, I did manage to reach the recently ousted former chairman of CPB, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, now vice-chairman of CPB. She is the wife of the governor of West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, and is helping her husband campaign for US senator. She is also campaigning for her Republican father, Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois. She had issued the following statement:
''It is outrageous that the Reagan administration vetoed the public broadcasting bill.... This bill represents a responsible, prudent, even restrained federal investment.... The veto will not 'reduce the deficit' one nickel.''
PBS president Bruce Christensen, in a speech delivered to the Media Institute in Washington on Oct. 23, asked why the President is so reluctant to sign a public-broadcasting funding bill:
''It certainly is not for lack of bipartisan support. Both this bill, S607 and its predecessor, S2436, which was also vetoed by the President some two months ago, enjoyed strong support from both sides of the aisle....
''So what is the answer? The administration asserts ... that the veto is a budget issue and does not stem from any ideological objection to the programming on public radio and television. However, we don't find the budget argument very compelling.
''First and foremost, the vetoed bill is not, as the President contends, a 'budget-buster.' It is an authorization bill. It would restore federal funding to public broadcasting in 1987 at a dollar level which in constant dollars is identical to what public broadcasting received 10 years ago.''
Earlier, when the first version of the bill was vetoed by the President, Mr. Christensen had said the action discriminated against the poor, children, and the elderly. ''It is a campaign issue, in the sense that we are talking about a service for people who may not be able to afford it - cable. ... This disagreement is only with the Reagan administration, not Republicans.''
In the course of researching this column, I managed to talk with just about all the key individuals involved or their representatives.
* Chairman Landau, speaking by telephone from New Mexico on her political campaign swing, insisted that she has been one of the leading exponents of public-affairs programming for several years. ''I have never once in three years had one person from the White House speak to me about any kind of programming.''
She pointed out that ''everybody on the board is a presidential appointee, with Senate confirmation. If we didn't know someone in a political party we would never have gotten there. For the two years I served on the board, most of the members were liberal Democrats.... The charge that the board is now being politicized is an unfair and inaccurate charge. I see a lot of sore losers.''
* Vice-chairman Rockefeller said: ''They are decimating something which I think is a very valuable institution in this country, and I'm not about to stand there and do nothing. There should be no politics in public broadcasting. No matter what administration - Republican or Democratic - had these policies about public broadcasting, I would come to the defence of the institution.'' She insisted that she is well balanced in her partisan politics - her husband is a Democrat and her father a Republican.
* PBS president Christensen told me: ''PBS is a bipartisan activity and I believe Republican voters who see what is happening should make it an issue that they take to their congressmen and President.''
While he sees no evidence that the Reagan administration is trying to gain more political control of public-affairs programming, he stated that advertising on PBS is something the administration would like to see happen as part of its campaign to make PBS get all of its funding from private sources. ''Reagan's National Telecommunications and Information Agency has been pushing that,'' he asserts.
What are the chances for a bill authorizing what PBS officials would feel are more reasonable funding levels?
Since nothing can be done until Congress reconvenes after the election, there is nothing to do but try again next year. Since they see a probable Reagan victory, none of the proponents of PBS want to antagonize the administration beyond the point where a fair appropriation could be forthcoming.
Said Ms. Landau: ''The fact is, we will have to speak to those same people again in January, so saying the veto is outrageous doesn't put you in a good position to go in and negotiate. It's important for all of us to work together.''
Landau said she hopes Reagan will win and her political activities will then end. ''Why don't people relax? Only a few days longer and it'll be over and I'll be working on a new bill.''
Said Rockefeller: ''If the Reagan administration really wanted to cut the budget, there are a lot of other places to make big cuts. The question is what's behind all this? I'm sick of hearing people say that PBS is a national treasure and then do nothing to help it. I'm only interested in one thing - hanging on to public broadcasting and preserving it.''
PBS president Christensen has the most pragmatic approach: ''We have to continue to rely on Congress and hope Congress can attach our bill to something that the President won't veto. The smart thing to do is to find something President Reagan has got to sign and tack a fair appropriation bill to it. That's the strategy.''
The answer to the question of whether or not public broadcasting is being politicized by the administration depends to a great extent upon the party to which you belong.
If viewers want to join the battle for added PBS appropriations, it won't do much good to write to congressmen, since the last bill passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House by 308 to 86, with strong bipartisan support. Thus, the only potentially effective weapons are post cards, letters, and telegrams sent directly to the White House.
Meantime, contributing to your local PBS fund-raising drive can certainly help sustain public broadcasting if the newly elected president should once again fail to respond to the demands of the people through their Congress.