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Public TV On The Defensive

While the level of outrage varied a bit, there was no one at the hearing, including representatives of public broadcasting, who defended the practice of sharing donor lists with political groups, reports CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent Bob Fuss

Republicans called it part of PBS's liberal bias. Democrats said it was just stupid. The practice is likely to be made illegal; the only question is whether public TV and radio funds will be cut as punishment.

Oklahoma Republican Steve Largent is among those who want a reduction. "Simply put: Big Bird is nearly 30 years old and it's time to leave the federal nest," he said.

However, it was clear at the hearing that was not the majority view, though everyone, including California Democrat Anna Eshoo, thought public TV stations had acted stupidly. "Everyone knows its wrong. everyone senses the sting of the embarassment," she said.

In the wake of criticism from congressional Republicans, the Public Broadcasting Service is advising its stations against providing membership lists to political groups.

In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing Tuesday, Ervin S. Duggan, the PBS president, said an advisory would go out this week "strongly urging our member stations to establish policies strictly prohibiting the exchange or rental of lists to partisan political campaigns, committees or groups."

Many public television and radio stations already have policies against providing their lists to political campaigns or organizations, Duggan said.

However, he said, "These policies need better auditing and enforcement mechanisms - and they need to be universal. Fortunately, our stations are now acutely aware of this issue and are taking steps to address it quickly."

In recent weeks, stations in such major markets as Boston, New York and Washington have acknowledged making membership lists available to political organizations, including the Democratic National Committee.

Often, such lists are rented, sold or exchanged through brokers. The DNC has said that it always goes through brokers in order to obtain lists for fund raising.

At issue is whether public broadcasters violated federal tax law by providing their lists to political groups. There is typically a three-year statute of limitations on such violations.

Although sharing membership lists is a legitimate business practice done daily by countless organizations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a private, nonprofit entity that's considered a charity for tax purposes. As such, it's barred from direct or indirect interventions in political campaigns.

The corporation distributes federal money to public radio and television stations, National Public Radio and PBS.

Providing lists to a political group wouldn't necessarily constitute an improper intervention, as long as the lists were provided equally to all campaigns or parties, lawyers say.

In the midst of the controversy, Repblicans have demanded a review of federal funding for public broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets about $250 million a year from Congress.

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