NPR, PBS campaigns to keep federal funds called unlawful

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NPR and PBS stations nationwide are rallying their audiences to contact Congress to fight against Republicans’ proposed spending cuts, but some affiliates’ pleas may violate laws preventing nonprofits or government-funded groups from lobbying.

Interrupting popular programs, the stations air warnings that cuts could end beloved children’s television shows such as “Sesame Street.” Some stations urge their audience to call and let Congress know their feelings, while others go further, instructing viewers to “stop the Senate” or “defend federal funding” for public broadcasting.

The ad campaigns are a direct response to House Republicans’ push to eliminate all Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds for the rest of the fiscal year. Democrats have fought the cuts and President Obama asked for $451 million for CPB in his 2012 budget request — a $6 million increase.

But lawmakers and conservative critics argue the stations are breaking two laws, one that prohibits using taxpayer-funded grants to petition Congress for more taxpayer money and the other that bans nonprofits from doing much lobbying of any kind.

With upward of $190,000 riding on the congressional spending fight, KBIA public radio at the University of Missouri has run radio and website ads urging listeners to “tell Congress funding for KBIA and other public broadcast is important to you,” and also directed viewers to visit “170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting,” a campaign created by public media executives that is fighting to save CPB’s taxpayer funding, which is distributed to more than 1,300 stations nationwide.

Mike Dunn, KBIA’s general manager, said he doesn’t think the station’s ad is “inappropriate” because it doesn’t tell people what side of the spending battle to line up on, and costs next to nothing. The message, he said, took about 10 minutes to make and about 10 minutes to post to the website, and that the radio announcers reading the ad on air would have been reading some sort of ad anyway.

“It has taken up a little bit of time,” Mr. Dunn said. “We put it out on the air. We put it on our website, but there was no tangible cost.”

KBIA is one of the numerous public radio and television stations that are running ads aimed at getting a lawmaker’s ear while also being organized as nonprofits, which means they function as educational organizations. The payoff is that donations to them are tax-deductible, but they’re limited in what lobbying they can do as federal law says nonprofits cannot have a substantial part of their activities be designed to lobby government officials.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, wrote a letter last week asking the Senate Finance Committee to look into whether any stations have crossed that line by pushing their audience to contact Congress.

Among the questions he suggested to the committee were to look into what the fair market value is of the airtime used to broadcast appeals, and to determine whether the appeals were run disproportionately during children’s programming.

“Can taxpayers be guaranteed that no government funds were used to broadcast these calls to action and lobby Congress for funding?” Mr. DeMint asked.

Separate funding

Officials at two of the larger stations in the public broadcasting network say that’s exactly what’s happening under their roofs, where they take extra pains to make sure they’ve followed the letter of the law.

Jeanne M. Hopkins, spokeswoman for WGBH TV and radio in Boston, said her station received about $8 million in CPB grants and that they’ve been “very careful” about documenting where federal dollars are spent, making certain they don’t use the grants to cover the cost of crafting or airing the ad campaign.

“In letting people know about this funding question, we are not using federal funds to do that work,” Ms. Hopkins said, adding that the grants often become seed money for programs they create, including children’s programs that involve curriculum development and education based work. “So, that means any staff member that writes something, records something or put it on air — we categorize that specifically. We are very aware of the importance of that.”

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