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COLUMN ONE : PBS: Behind the Sound and Fury : Why should taxpayers support a 'sandbox for the rich'? critics ask. Who would want to kill Barney? backers cry. Politics and rhetoric obscure fight over federal funds for public broadcasting.

January 31, 1995|NINA J. EASTON and JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At .0003% of the federal budget, public broadcasting doesn't even rate a mention in the fat document's index. But to Newt Gingrich, the $285-million appropriation is a vivid example of how an out-of-touch liberal Establishment has captured control of the nation's purse strings.

So, at a recent news conference, the House Speaker stepped up to the plate, just as he's done routinely since launching his campaign to halt taxpayer subsidies for what he calls "this little sandbox for the rich."

"The only group lobbying (for public broadcasting)," Gingrich declared, "are a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people so they get to spend the money."

Across town at the National Press Club, Lamb Chop's sidekick was helping Public Broadcasting Service President Ervin Duggan plead his case. If Gingrich wants to play the political game of "us vs. them," who better for the PBS crowd to trot out as the face of "them" than doe-eyed puppeteer Shari Lewis, the ebullient redhead who is entertaining a second generation of children on public TV?

Over a cup of coffee before Duggan's speech, Lewis branded charges of elitism as "dumb"--60% of the households who watch PBS make less than $40,000. The argument that government should not be involved in culture, she said, is "barbaric"--Canada and England spend more than $30 per person on public broadcasting each year, compared with America's $1. And the system does not waste taxpayer dollars, she said, noting that her wardrobe designer on "Lamb Chop's Play Along!" buys the cast's shoes at Ross Dress for Less.

Welcome to Washington's culture wars, Act I, Scene I: the fate of public broadcasting. Nobody pretends that federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is more than a nick in the federal budget. But the tug of war over its future makes for grand political theater, rich in the symbolism of the times. Lawmakers and interest groups on both ends of the ideological spectrum see much political capital to be gained by drawing attention to it.

So far, public broadcasting's prospects appear grim. Executives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federally funded agency that doles out taxpayer money to local stations--14% of the system's total budget--are girding for deep cuts from the Republican-controlled Congress; more pessimistic scenarios point to a gradual elimination of federal funds altogether. And some legislators are talking of schemes to privatize the system by selling off all or some of it to investors.

How that would ultimately affect the 110 million people who watch public television and the 18 million who listen to public radio each week is anybody's guess: The system is a complex pastiche of nearly 1,000 locally controlled stations in varying states of health. But it's likely that rural areas would lose stations, while everyone else would find slimmer pickings in their program guides.

That doesn't bother conservatives, who extol the range of options in broadcast and cable that the free market has spawned and see nothing wrong with public TV competing in that market.

With an explosion of media outlets, "the original justification for taxpayer funding of public broadcasting due to 'market failure' no longer holds water," says Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who plans to introduce legislation to privatize the system.

In a symbolic nod to free-market media, Gingrich overlooked PBS icons Barney and Big Bird to bring Fox-TV's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" to Congress on its opening day this month. Banned from many preschools because of the real-life karate kicks they inspire, the Rangers epitomize to public-broadcast allies the crass commercialism spawned by profit-seeking producers. The Rangers were uppermost on Lewis' mind when she said: "You cannot trust the market to take care of our kids."

But to many Republicans, Barney and Big Bird are the ones who have something to answer for: These critics argue that a handful of producers are getting rich off lunch buckets bearing pictures of plump purple dinosaurs and goofy yellow birds while PBS goes begging to Congress for money.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) insists that he and his colleagues don't want to kill Barney and Big Bird, "we just want to transform them from government bureaucrats to free-market entrepreneurs."

The attack on public broadcasting comes from three fronts: fiscal conservatives who want to prove that in these tight times all nonessentials must go; free-market devotees who see CPB as the next grand experiment in privatization, with harder-headed business decisions and investors filling in for government subsidies; and ideological conservatives who complain of a liberal bias in public programming.

Democratic lawmakers see in Gingrich's "elitism" comments a calculated political strategy: When budget-cutters come under attack for trimming programs for the poor, they can point to CPB as an example of a program for the "rich" that was axed.

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