Six months after the fact, the head of National Public Radio apologized Wednesday for what some lawmakers called a "slanderous" report linking anthrax-laced letters to a Christian conservative organization.
“We have made mistakes at NPR. One mistake was … our report about TVC,” said Kevin Klose, president and CEO of the public broadcasting radio network, referring to a story that suggested the Traditional Values Coalition was connected to the attempted assassination of two senators.
"You have my personal apology for that mistake and I hope to go on from there,” Klose said.
Klose’s comments in a Wednesday House subcommittee hearing came after several Republican members implored NPR to apologize for a January news package that suggested that the conservative group, which represents 43,000 member churches, was connected to the anthrax letters sent last fall to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The NPR story suggested that TVC “fit the profile” of groups that might have been responsible for those types of letters. Such letters were ultimately linked to the deaths of five Americans.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the TVC, called Wednesday's apology "theater," and said the damage was far worse than a simple mea culpa could rectify.
“Clearly NPR employees graduated from the school of anti-Christian bigotry where their new math of two-plus-two-equals-four equates to Christian-organization-plus-speak-out-against-senators-equals-murder," Lafferty charged, adding that TVC's lawyers are fighting for a full retraction.
After receiving complaints about the story from listeners, NPR issued an on-air statement calling the reporting “inappropriate,” but did not go so far as to apologize or issue a retraction.
Wednesday's House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet hearing was billed as an oversight discussion, for which TVC's input was sought. The hearing also provided a look into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s mandated conversion to digital programming for the year 2003 — for which the organization is seeking more funding to complete.
Lawmakers speaking to representatives from NPR and Public Broadcasting Station said they were “conflicted” about fully supporting CPB because of the liberal biases, as demonstrated by the report on TVC.
“Perhaps NPR cannot understand that members of TVC and members of the Christian community might be offended by this,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the full committee. For them, Tauzin suggested, “anyone outside that [liberal] circle is considered right wing, abnormal.”
But defenders of NPR dismissed those charges as the usual anti-public broadcasting rhetoric, based on liberal-versus-conservative biases typically sparked when CPB is looking for support from Congress.
“There is no question there is a bias — it’s far too conservative,” said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., amid laughter from the audience. He cited popular conservatives with regular stints on PBS, including “that classic Republican, Oscar the Grouch,” of Sesame Street fame.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said perhaps TVC should drop its call for an apology since "a Christian value was forgiveness."
Under federal law, PBS must convert to digital broadcasting — an endeavor that the Association of Public Television Stations says will require an additional $274 million to finish the job. In 2004, CPB is slated to receive $380 million, or 12 percent of its funding, from federal dollars. President Bush has requested $395 million for CPB in 2005.
Some lawmakers question whether CPB, chartered in 1969 as an alternative to the three existing networks, is still necessary in the world of broad cable, digital and Internet information systems.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, suggested that people were already voting with their feet against CPB's relevancy.
"Put me down as one of the skeptics about the need for public broadcasting today," he said.