Laying a Nest Egg For Public Television

AMERICAN democracy is a see-saw struggle between the collective good sense of the people, the innate distrust of their leaders, and the sales pitch of big business to both.

There is an extraordinarily important variation of this theme on Capitol Hill, where a quiet bipartisan effort is gathering momentum to create a trust fund for public broadcasting. Twenty-seven years after the birth of what Fred Friendly called "this wonderful, poor starving child," there is just a chance that the only sensible radio-TV programming instrument left coast-to-coast could be set free from the tyranny of political paranoia, especially the congressional brand.

The leaders of NPR, PBS, Public Radio International, and public television stations have proposed the idea. There are, of course, devils in the details: how to capitalize the trust fund and who'll control it.

Sadly, elements of the public broadcasting community are warring over the issue.

Ironically, prospective liberation for public broadcasting springs from right-wing efforts to fly it into the ground on a fiscal "glide path to zero." A veritable tidal wave of public protest, little noted by mainstream media, has produced more mail than threats to cut Medicare. Startled members of Congress confront a political minefield at the grass roots. Some believe they have a popular mandate to reverse course and relaunch noncommercial broadcasting on a "flight path" to fiscal independence.

Among others, the respected Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, describes a popular backlash extending well beyond the "Barney" clacque to his rural Republican voters, some of them self-described members of the National Rifle Association, demanding that Congress resist the move to cut a program service they deem vital. It includes farm reports aired regularly by local public radio stations.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, author of the "zero out" phrase that found a place in history, has now tried to blunt the backlash. On the PBS interview series hosted by Charlie Rose, he said last month: "We do want to keep the public broadcasting system. I think that by emphasizing the cut ... I sent exactly the wrong signal."

How this sea change is translated into policy is the tricky part, because Washington often resists doing the right thing, especially when the public finds it to be right.

A capital pool of between $5 billion and $6 billion would be needed for a trust fund to produce the interest income to replace the $300 million annual federal share of what the system needs - about 14 percent of its total budget. Compare this ongoing bargain with the $1.27 billion that NBC recently bid for the rights to just two upcoming Olympic competitions.

Advocates of a trust fund propose that the capital pool come from an annual levy on commercial broadcasters for the lucrative licenses they receive from the federal government; another source would be so-called one-time transfer fees on the sale of radio- and TV-station licenses from seller to buyer. A brisk trade in commercial stations is expected to flow from deregulation provisions of the congressionally rewritten federal communications law.

Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Kennedy, is one of the leaders of the campaign to dedicate trust fund resources to wholesome and intelligent children's programs. "It's time to enforce the bargain," he declares, under which commercial broadcasters "signed up to be a public servant and a public trustee." If commercial broadcasters are unwilling to serve the public interest, they should pay the public broadcasting system to do it.

There's mounting pressure on Republican leaders to create such a trust fund. Texan Jack Fields, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, is on record against using federal "taxes" to capitalize the fund - but won't say whether he defines the proposed spectrum fee as a tax.

Also now studying the trust fund is Sen. Larry Pressler, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who once invited private enterprise to snap up pieces of the public system. He faces a brisk reelection challenge next year in South Dakota, where a popular bumper sticker reads: "Support public broadcasting. Privatize Pressler."

Fields, Pressler, and Gingrich have assured the culture vultures who support them that they will "wean" public broadcasting from federal appropriations. The trust fund would allow them to satisfy that pledge and let the system flourish. But they face intense counterpressure from the well-off commercial industry. The broadcasting industry has been singularly resistant to shame. The National Association of Broadcasters is the most persistently powerful lobby in Washington. Other broadcasters understand that their news value to network and local newscasts hinges on their willingness to go along.

Given a persistent GOP history of seeking to control public broadcasting, and a Democratic history of failing to provide a sensible way to pay for it, there is little reason to believe Congress will do the right thing on the trust fund - except, perhaps, for one factor: the voice of the people.

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