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Lawmakers seek to starve Big Bird


WASHINGTON - They're coming after Big Bird again.

And Arthur, Reading Rainbow, Dragon Tales, Between the Lions, Postcards from Buster and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

If you thought you saw a quiet end to the battle to "defund" public television and radio 10 years ago, guess again. The culture warlords are back, draped this time in a rather tattered and faded cloak of fiscal responsibility.

A House subcommittee endorsed a proposal Thursday to make the biggest cuts in public broadcasting since Congress created the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967.

Before I fulminate, I must insert some appropriate disclosures: Besides my day job, I am a regular essayist for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, a commentator for the National Public Radio program News and Notes with Ed Gordon and a longtime panelist on The McLaughlin Group, which some PBS and NBC stations carry.

But as the local stations say during their pledge drives, what's important is not the value that public broadcasting has for me, but the value that it has for you.

On a voice vote, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education decided to eliminate the federal dollars that underwrite popular children's educational programs such as the ones mentioned above. The panel also voted to completely eliminate CPB's funding in two years, beginning with a 25 percent cut, from $400 million to $300 million, in the budget for next year.

The subcommittee's chairman, Republican Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio, said the cuts have nothing to do with widely publicized conservative dissatisfaction with perceived liberal bias in public radio or TV programs. Rather, he said, cuts are needed to balance the federal budget.

Nevertheless, I'll believe Congress really cares about balancing the budget when I see it roll back - at least a teeny bit - President Bush's wartime tax cuts.

Besides, as we have seen with Social Security, I'm betting that Americans like public TV and radio more than Big Bird's assailants imagine. You may recall how Newt Gingrich, a few weeks before he became speaker of the House in 1995, vowed that his new GOP Congress would "zero out" federal funding for public broadcasting. When word got out that Mr. Gingrich's revolutionaries wanted to fry Big Bird, viewer backlash forced them to back down.

Significantly, the backlash came not so much from New York or Los Angeles or other stereotypical havens of liberal elites as from rural towns in Nebraska and Oklahoma and Alaska and the Dakotas and elsewhere in the red-state Heartland of America. A decade later, Mr. Gingrich is gone and Big Bird is still here. Now, House Republicans again are warming up the griddle.

What's particularly shortsighted about the proposed public broadcasting cuts is how deeply they slash beyond cuts requested by the White House. For example, the House panel completely erased $23.4 million that the Bush administration wants continued for a children's education project called "Ready to Learn," which includes Sesame Street, Dragon Tales, Clifford and Arthur, among others. Sadly, it is low-income children and their families who stand to lose the most if these proposed cuts go through.

Sure, most Americans have more broadcasting choices than what was once available. We have 300 or more channels of cable TV that we didn't have when CPB was founded. That's great - for those of us who can afford it.

But take a look at what passes for "public affairs" programming on commercial cable TV, and what do you see? Too often it is hour after hour of arguments over "the runaway bride," that scoundrel Scott Peterson and the talented-yet-strange Michael Jackson.

After all that, what a relief it is to turn to Charlie Rose, Washington Week in Review or Paul Gigot's panel of Wall Street Journal editorialists, confident in the knowledge that I will not hear a word about Paris Hilton's love life, except in jest.

If that still means something to you, let your congressional representative know it. Operators are standing by.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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