March 3, 1995 in Nation/World

On Lousy Day In Neighborhood, Panel Reduces Funds For Pbs Mr. Rogers, Vice President Gore Defend Spending On Educational TV

Marc Gunther Knight-Ridder

Mr. Rogers left the comforts of his famous neighborhood Thursday to speak on behalf of public television in the nation’s capital. He was joined by Mr. Gore.

“Can you say children?” Mr. Gore said. “Can you say education?”

But, across town in Mr. Gingrich’s neighborhood, the news was not good for public broadcasting.

Hours after Vice President Al Gore and Fred Rogers, the genial host of PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” made fervent pleas for public television in speeches to college students, a House committee approved legislation that would eliminate federal funds for public broadcasting by 1998.

Federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which amounts to about $285 million this year, would be reduced 15 percent next year and 30 percent in 1997, under the bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee and sent to the House floor.

The funding reductions are part of a $17.5 billion package of cuts in housing, education, veterans and nutrition programs, aimed at trimming the size of the government.

Supporters of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio said they would try to get the money restored by the full House or by the Senate, which is deemed more moderate. Federal funds for the CPB, which funnels money to PBS and NPR, account for about 15 percent of their budgets.

Standing squarely in their way is House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who wants to eliminate federal funds for public broadcasting. He has called PBS and NPR elitist frills that should be cut loose of the taxpayer dole.

“All I’m saying is, you as a taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes to keep billionaire Big Bird … on television,” Gingrich said recently.

Gingrich and other GOP leaders say that programs that are valuable or popular, such as “Sesame Street” and “Barney,” will survive in the marketplace.

Gore’s speech, delivered at American University, was the first time the Clinton administration has stepped into the public debate over PBS and NPR. Focusing on the educational value of public TV, Gore called public broadcasting a “national treasure” that costs taxpayers only about $1.09 per person per year.

It’s efficient and democratic, not wasteful or elitist, Gore said.

“Public television is the only source of educational television available to every American. That’s the opposite of elitist,” he said.

He described the Republican efforts to eliminate federal funds for public broadcasting as “mean-spirited and dead-flat wrong” and “a political mistake.”

“Nobody ran for Congress last year, saying ‘I’m going to eliminate public broadcasting,”’ Gore said. “It wasn’t part of the public dialogue.”

Warning Republicans that public support is strong for PBS and NPR, Gore said: “If you try to kill it, we will fight you every step of the way.”

Rogers, for his part, made no threats. Instead, he led an audience of college students in the singing of the theme song from his show and quietly described public television as a “wonderful gift.”

Afterward, both men met with preschoolers - who greeted one with eager cries of “Mr. Rogers!” while ignoring the other.

Gore eventually coaxed the kids into saying that they watch “Mr. Rogers,” “Sesame Street” and “Barney,” and that they don’t want those shows to go away.

“I think they’re a lot smarter than some of the congressional leaders,” the vice president said. “It’s really not that complicated.”

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