Misleading Congress: A New Habit for PBS?

In the Reagan-Bush years, Frontline, produced by Boston PBS superstation WGBH, aired several shows marinated in outrage at officials lying to Congress. In July, WGBH was itself exposed as lying to Congress about its cozy five-year fundraising relationship with the Democratic National Committee, swapping direct-mail names for mutual benefit. (They claimed it was a one-time bureaucratic mistake.) Yesterday, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Inspector General's report was released, and he has found public broadcasting officials misled a House Commerce subcommittee which oversees their funding.

At a July 20 hearing, the panel's Democrats touted new information from CPB that several Republican groups had also swapped lists with unidentified PBS stations, including little-known groups with names like "Country Club Republicans." [See box.]

A Nexis search of all news articles couldn't find any mention of several other groups cited by public broadcasters. Except for stories on the House hearing, there were no media mentions of the "Golden Aged Republicans" or the "Republican Party Builders."

On September 1, Electronic Media magazine's Web site revealed that testimony was just plain wrong. "[T]he Corporation for Public Broadcasting acknowledged late Wednesday that CPB and PBS executives provided inaccurate testimony to a congressional panel....industry officials told the House telecommunications subcommittee that PBS member stations swapped donor lists with the 'Country Club Republicans,' but CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz says no such group exists. He said list brokers came up with the moniker after assembling names of high-powered Republican donors. Meanwhile, Mr. Konz is suspicious about the industry's claim that some stations exchanged lists with former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Industry officials had cited swaps with those Republican entities as evidence that public TV stations were not being partisan when they exchanged lists with Democratic groups. At the hearing, panel Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., had warned industry officials there would be repercussions if their testimony was wrong or misrepresented the facts."

Today's Boston Globe story quoted the Konz report as finding "Virtually all of the exchange or rental transactions of station membership/ donor names were to apparently Democratic organizations." As for Republican-sounding groups, the report stated: "While many of the names acquired by the public broadcasters came from lists which had political-sounding names, they were not in fact owned or compiled by political organizations." [Emphasis ours.]

But officials kept pushing the fake Republican groups in the media. The Copley News Service reported on August 3 that PBS President Ervin "Duggan, who listed the Bob Dole 1996 presidential campaign, a group called 'Country Club Republicans' and the conservative Heritage Foundation among beneficiaries, said: 'This is an entirely bipartisan affair.'" Yesterday, in the same afternoon as the CPB report, Duggan resigned. Is that a way to pretend some head rolled over false testimony and cozy relations between PBS stations and Democratic and liberal fundraisers?

Will Chairman Tauzin and the GOP follow through and punish public broadcasters for their misleading Congress? Or is impunity still the best policy? - Tim Graham