Is There Room Left in Oscar’s Trash Can?

Summertime is scandal time on Capitol Hill. But this summer we have been left without any truly entertaining displays of indignation by righteous Republicans. Their sole effort-concerning the supposedly illicit exchange of donor mailing lists between the Democrats and the Public Broadcasting System-turned out to be a bust. As is so often the case, the offenses ascribed to PBS and several of its largest stations were hardly crimes against the state, and on closer examination those offenses were bipartisan.

The PBS case began promisingly, not least because conservative ideologues in Washington have always wanted to defund public television and radio. When The Boston Globe revealed that WGBH, Boston’s public TV outlet, shared donor lists with the Democratic Party, excited Republicans immediately resurrected their 1995 demand to strip the system of its Federal subsidies.

The Globe story seemed devastating: A nice suburban mom, having made a contribution in her little boy’s name to support Barney, the simpering purple dinosaur, suddenly found the innocent child receiving mail solicitations from the Democratic National Committee. She protested this invasion of her home in shock and outrage, leading to further revelations of list-swapping (sounds filthy, doesn’t it?)

between Democrats and public stations in Washington, New York and San Francisco as well as Boston. Things looked even worse when some of the public television executives admitted that their lists had also been used by outfits such as Handgun Control Inc., Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.

A conspiracy involving gun controllers, pro-choicers, criminal-coddlers and public TV sounded like the realization of a Republican nightmare. For a slow summer following the botched impeachment, they could scarcely have hoped for anything scarier. Not only would Big Bird’s taxpayer subsidy be rescinded, but there might even be a case for putting that fine-feathered limousine liberal behind bars.

After all, The Globe had quoted a tax lawyer warning that public TV stations, as tax-exempt organizations, could face Internal Revenue Service sanctions for dabbling in politics. Even liberal columnists at the paper lambasted the PBS staff, with one writing that “by cozying up to polemicists, ideologues, and propagandists, [they] have defiled and politicized their mission.”

Excited Republican House members immediately demanded a criminal investigation of the Boston station, in addition to emergency Congressional hearings. Representative Christopher Cox, the Republican of California whose Chinese espionage probe fell flat a few months ago, told reporters that “the proper response to the WGBH illegal activity is oversight hearings.” But there was a flaw in this thrilling scenario, as Mr. Cox more or less acknowledged by admitting that he couldn’t cite any particular law that the PBS stations had violated.

Careful readers of The Globe ‘s coverage, most of which was excellent, would have found that the truth was in fact rather dull (like all too much PBS programming) when compared with Congressional fantasies. Rather than scheming with their Democratic pals to misuse donor lists, the PBS development executives had done just what Republicans had long urged them to do, indeed forced them to do: They had tried to become self-supporting in the free market, by exploiting a highly valuable asset. They had employed the same kind of list brokerage firms that conservative and liberal organizations routinely use, and sought new donors from various lists, all to wean themselves from public subsidy. They had made no conscious effort to help Democrats or liberal groups raise money, but merely allowed their list brokers to rent names out to other organizations, including the Democratic Party.

They had done this, moreover, in a completely ordinary way, permitting donors to prevent their names from being sold to junk mailers with an “opt-out card.” That outraged suburban mom, who happens to be a registered Republican, hadn’t informed WGBH that she wanted her son’s name deleted from the marketing roster. (She told The Globe that she “didn’t recall” seeing such a card.)

After some necessary apologizing from various PBS executives, who promised to sin no more, the entire “scandal” quickly receded from consciousness. They did note in passing, however, that if the Republicans had wanted to purchase their lists, the public TV entrepreneurs would have been happy to oblige.

In fact, although this news received less attention, some of them already had serviced the G.O.P. According to documents provided to House Democrats by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, at least seven stations exchanged donor lists with Republicans, including KCET in Los Angeles, WKNO in Memphis, KCPT in Kansas City, New Hampshire Public Television, and Iowa Public Television. The New Hampshire stations admitted sharing their own lists with the 1996 Presidential campaign of that notorious left-winger Bob Dole.

Let’s hope they can come up with a juicier scandal before Labor Day. Is There Room Left in Oscar’s Trash Can?