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There's got to be some place between full restoration [of funding] and zero that will make sense and allow these stations to continue.

National debate over public broadcasting could impact North Country stations

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Debate continued in the House of Representatives late last night on a $1.2 trillion spending bill that carries deep cuts to a number of Federal programs.

Among the $60 billion in cuts is a proposal pushed by House Republicans to eliminate all $430 million in federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

That money subsidizes public television and public radio in the North Country, including North Country Public Radio.

The idea of ending federal support of public broadcasting has some support among Republicans and conservatives here in the region, while others think it would be shortsighted.

Meanwhile, managers of the region's public radio and television stations have been mobilizing their supporters, through announcements on the air and on their websites, against what they describe as an "assault" on public broadcasting.

Chris Knight has our story.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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NOTE:  This story was reported and produced independently by Chris Knight, with editorial support from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.  Nathan Brown, an Enterprise reporter, contributed to the story.

Supporters of the House Republicans' plan, including many conservatives, have argued that the federal government shouldn't subsidize public broadcasting, given the ballooning national debt.

Mark Barie, head of the Upstate New York Tea Party and a former volunteer host of a Mountain Lake PBS news program, said NPR and PBS have become "a luxury we can no longer afford."

"I wouldn't recommend a 100 percent decrease (immediately)," Barie said. "I think these stations should be given an opportunity to become financially independent. But after a reasonable period of time, the funding has to disappear. We're in an emergency situation, and we've got to do emergency types of cuts."

Other critics complain that public broadcasting often slants to the left. Ray Scollin is the chairman of the village of Saranac Lake's Republican Committee.

"It's clear to me that NPR has a bias, more liberal than conservative, so it's not surprising that Republicans are the ones quick to say this should be cut. But more importantly the government shouldn't be in the media business. We shouldn't supplement any media."

But not all Republican leaders in the region agree. State Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said she believes public broadcasting is generally unbiased, and should continue to be supported by public dollars.

"I feel the reporting is fair; it's balanced. I do think they have their niche," Duprey said.

"I'm not going to say they should have full restoration of funding because I don't think anybody can have full restoration of funding at this time. But there's got to be some place between full restoration and zero that will make sense and allow these stations to continue."

Other supporters of public media, including many Democrats in Congress, say NPR and PBS provide public-service and educational programs that are especially important in rural areas with few other broadcast media.

"This is the best in family values and quality programming that you're ever going to see," said Congressman Bill Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh whose wife works for Mountain Lake PBS.

Speaking on the floor of the House this week, he described the proposal to strip funding from public broadcasting as an "ideological" attack.

"If our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are concerned about the development of morals, integrity and education, then public broadcasting is a place they should support, not kill."

Owens said said he "would much rather see an across-the-board cut that might be something in the range of 2-and-a-half to 3-and-a-half percent."

Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, who represents part of the North Country, has proposed an amendment to the bill that would cut funding for public broadcasting by 13%.

His spokeswoman, Stephanie Valle, said Gibson supports funding for public broadcasting, watches public television and listens to National Public Radio.

"While he believes it needs to be part of the programs that are cut, he believes it needs to be done at an appropriate level," she said.

This isn't the first time federal funds for public broadcasting have been in jeopardy. PBS and NPR have been frequent targets of Republicans in the past.

So what's different this time around? Ellen Rocco, station manager for North Country Public Radio says this attack is in a category of its own because of the current economic climate and because it's led by an agressive, extremely conservative wing of Congress.

"I think we have to take this assault on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting extremely seriously," the NCPR leader said.

"At a minimum, I would expect to see cuts. We have to work to make sure that any reduction in funding we see is not disproportionate, is not crippling. The people of this country own our system, and I think we should be very careful about dismantling it or threatening it."

Rocco said 15 percent of her station's annual budget comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

At Mountain Lake PBS, president Alice Recore said federal funding makes up 27 percent of her annual budget. Both women said that if support was lost, they have to scale back their local programming and possibly cut staff.

Recore said she understands the need to reduce federal spending, but thinks public broadcasters are being unfairly targeted.

"As a taxpayer myself, I know the budget needs to be cut, and I fully support that," Recore said. "And we certainly do expect to share in that pain. But we don't want this to happen because we're being singled out. And I think that's what is happening now."

A final vote on the spending bill is expected today in the House. Even if it's approved, it faces a more stiff challenge in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Observers seem to agree that the more likely scenario could be cuts to, but not a complete elimination of, federal support for public broadcasting.

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