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WGBH, Dems traded lists for 6 years

Station embarrassed over policy breach

WASHINGTON — Despite claims by Boston pubcaster WGBH that its name-swapping with the Democratic National Committee was merely an administrative error, the station in fact initiated the business relationship with the DNC in 1993, regularly traded mailing lists with the political party over a six-year period and at one point was paid to do so.

Republicans, angry over a reports that WGBH had a working relationship with the DNC (Daily Variety, July 14), canceled a planned vote Wednesday that could have led to a major increase in spending for public broadcasters. Instead of holding a vote to recommend an increase in federal subsidy for Corp. for Public Broadcasting, members of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee want to hold a hearing that focuses on WGBH’s name-swapping deal with the DNC.

Republicans are now busy finding ways to trim pubcasters’ budget. “We are going to re-evaluate the funding levels and pare them down,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). CPB had been in line for a healthy budget hike.

DNC press secretary Jenny Backus told Daily Variety that the relationship between the pubcaster and the political party began in November of 1993 when the station asked the politicos for 5,000 names to supplement its own mailing list.

WGBH made a second request in June of 1994 for an additional 3,900 names and a yet another request in July of the same year for another 3,900 names. At this point, WGBH owed the DNC more than 12,000 names from its mailing list, which it repaid over the next five years.

In February of this year, the DNC approached WGBH with a request for 20,000 names to solicit donations. The station cut a deal with the DNC that included swapping 9,800 names and a straight payment for an additional 10,000 names. It is not clear how much the DNC paid for the 10,000 names on WGBH’s mailing list, but the station’s general manager Jon Abbott said the fee was probably “a few thousand dollars.”

Several people in Washington predicted that WGBH was not the only station that traded mailing lists with the DNC. Asked if there was any record if the political party had similar relationships with other pubcasting stations, Backus said she did not know for sure, “I would not be surprised.”

Abbott said Wednesday that the station initiated a policy against trading mailing lists with political parties or religious organization in late 1994. However, that policy was apparently ignored for several years. “It’s against policy. It’s not something we condone. We are embarrassed,” said Abbott. He said the station is still reviewing old documents to get a solid grasp on all the facts.

Tauzin’s spokesman Johnson said WGBH may have violated law governing its tax exempt status by selling its mailing list to the DNC. Republicans intend to amend the law authorizing the federal subsidy for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting to make sure it never happens again. “It’s not going to be ‘gee, we’re sorry, we won’t let it happen again.’ It’s going to be ‘gee, we’re sorry, you’re going to jail.’ ”

The DNC’s Backus pointed out Wednesday that Republicans have never been particularly friendly to pubcasting. Indeed, when they first regained the majority in 1994 one of the first things the GOP tried to do was eliminated all federal funding for the PBS and National Public Radio.

Backus said the kind of name-swapping between the DNC and WGBH is routine in the direct mailing industry. While she certainly regrets the controversy that has erupted about the business relationship between WGBH and the political party, she also suggested that the GOP is “playing partisan games” with public television. “The Republicans are playing these games and the only losers will be America’s children.”