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.”

They also “make sure our messages are appropriate, so we do not tell people what they should think, we just let them know that this is happening in Congress, you can let your representatives in Congress know however you feel,” she said. “It really should be your choice because it is your tax dollars.”

At WETA television and radio in Arlington, Va., Mary Stewart, vice president of external affairs, said employees are “very conscious of the accounting” involved in keeping federal grants and private donations separate — going as far as pegging “a value to our air time and a value to our staff time” to make sure they are billed appropriately.

As a result, the station says it has always come out clean on internal and CPB audits.

“We have faced federal funding challenges in the past and we are very confident in the types of messaging we are using and have used to inform our public, our members and our viewers of their right to contact their elected officials,” WETA spokeswoman Kate Kelly said.

Drawing lines

Both WGBH and WETA said their appeals never told their audiences which way to lobby Congress, but only to call and let their feelings be known.

Many other stations drew a similar line, but some went further by urging their audience to take a stand.

WQED in Pittsburgh urges its website surfers to “Stop the Senate From Cutting Funding for Public Broadcasting and WQED!”

The station also is airing a television advertisement featuring throwback footage from a 1969 Senate hearing in which Fred Rogers, the host of the popular children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” testifies before Congress in defense of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s proposed $20 million grant for the newly formed CPB, an amount that President Nixon wanted sliced in half.

In the ad, Rogers says he is “concerned about what’s being delivered to our children in this country” and that in his show “we deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood.”

“We don’t have to bop someone over the head to make drama on the screen,” he tells them. “We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations.”

The video then cuts to another part of his testimony, where he states, “I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize he is unique. I end this program by saying you’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you and I like you just the way you are.”

WQED did not respond to three telephone calls seeking comment.

In addition to the nonprofit law, other legal scholars said the stations could run afoul of a law that prohibits recipients of taxpayer money from using it to influence the government.

Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former Justice Department lawyer, said the law in question used to apply only to federal employees but under a 2002 change it now covers all organizations that receive federal money.

He also said stations that are counting on carefully worded appeals to get around the law are out of luck. The law is written broadly and applies to any effort “intended or designed to influence in any manner a member of Congress.”

Mr. von Spakovsky said the key question for stations will be whether they’re able to segregate federal money and show they did their lobbying purely with non-federal funds. He said he wasn’t sure how a station could do that when it comes to broadcast time.

“I can tell you that I still have a lot of contacts in the Justice Department and I actually talked to some people I know over there,” he said. “There’s no question in their mind this would apply to anybody who gets a federal grant.”

But Joseph Sandler, nonprofit and lobby regulation attorney with the law firm Sandler, Reiff & Young P.C., said it is possible to segregate spending so that federal dollars aren’t used for lobbying activities.

“They would have to be using funds they are receiving through private sponsorships for this purpose,” Mr. Sandler said.

The lobbying law has been on the books for nearly a century, but a 2008 Congressional Research Service report said nobody has been prosecuted under it. The law carries no criminal penalties, but does allow for a fine.

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