What's good for the goose

Some important differences between public broadcasting and WORLD

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

Our cover story this week is an important piece of journalism. When several so-called public television stations, partially funded with your tax dollars, make a regular practice of sharing their mailing lists with political parties-and then stonewall for several weeks when asked direct questions about that practice-that is a story involving ethical breaches of an important kind.

Now WORLD is demonstrating (the story starts on p. 14) how that apparent deception has gone even further. At least a couple of those television stations did not report to the IRS that they were doing what they have admitted now has been a regular practice. Such filings to the IRS may be waived as incidental errors, or depending on whether there is evidence of intent to conceal information they may be judged much more seriously.

But what's good for the goose is, as the proverb has it, also good for the gander. In our reportorial zeal to point out the PBS stations' partisan use of their mailing lists, some bells sounded in the distance. Was it possible we had done something very similar ourselves?

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Indeed, it was. As we have indicated a number of times in this column, WORLD makes available to responsible users the names and addresses of its subscribers on a rental basis. Excluded from any such arrangement are all subscribers who ask WORLD in advance to keep their names and addresses private. A quick review suggested that WORLD has, over the last couple of years, rented its lists at the normal rate approximately a dozen times to politically activist organizations and entities.

By itself, there is nothing illegal or suspect in such rentals. But WORLD found itself a bit more complicit than that. WORLD is a division of God's World Publications Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization which, like the PBS-related stations, is required to file returns with the IRS. Our review indicated that we too had inadvertently said no when we should have said yes when asked whether we engaged in "Sharing of ... mailing lists [or] other assets ..." with political organizations or other such groups. So we too found ourselves liable for an erroneous return.

In reporting the story about the PBS stations, therefore, WORLD is embarrassed but eager to be up front with its readers and subscribers. We do believe there are some issues you still should keep in mind.

First, the wrongdoing of the television stations tends to be more serious because of their use of public money. For such publicly funded media to use their public trust in such a manner is a more serious breach than for a privately published journal like WORLD, whose leanings its readers understand and support.

Second, the PBS television stations have had a number of weeks to set the record straight about their errors-but still are stonewalling over important issues. Bob Jones's account of his visits to two different PBS stations, in Washington and Boston, does little to assure anybody that even now they are telling the truth. We at WORLD are chagrined that we too may have filed an erroneous return, but even with this report we are attempting to demonstrate a kind of openness that will promote your trust. If the television stations, like us, accidentally reported bad information to the IRS, why can't they own up quickly to the problem?

Finally, the PBS stations have been dishonest ever since this story first broke more than a month ago. Early on, they said that the list use had been authorized by new and part-time help, when in fact they conceded later that the authorizations had come from the highest levels and had continued over several years. Such denials and subsequent adjustments hardly add to the trustworthiness of the stations, of PBS, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

So we've got a little egg on our face. We wish it weren't there. And we're busy getting our forms corrected and our processes remedied.

But don't miss the bottom-line lesson. WORLD is a private entity, where you can register your vote of confidence or no-confidence any time you want. You can cancel your subscription, or you can choose not to renew when that time comes.

There's no such accountability device for the PBS stations, who sail on with their public funding, accountable to virtually no one as they refuse to tell you what they've really done. If they won't tell you the truth about themselves, why should you trust what they say about others?

WORLD is prepared to provide a full list of its list rentals to those who care to see it. That's all we're asking of the PBS affiliates. After all, if PBS won't do it, who will?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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