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Senator the Grouch? Debate over public media is nothing new

If history is any precedent -- especially if Republicans win control of Congress -- assignment editors can probably plan on a Washington D.C. press conference featuring Big Bird and Oscar in the next few months.

In the wake of NPR’s decision to fire political analyst Juan Williams for his remarks about Muslims, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint announced Friday that he will introduce legislation to nix federal financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and PBS programming. (In fiscal year 2008, public radio and TV received 13.8 percent of its total revenues from CPB appropriations.)

“With record debt and unemployment, there's simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize liberal programming they disagree with,” said DeMint in a written statement.

The sentiment, echoed by conservatives from Rep. Eric Cantor to Sarah Palin, could set up a rerun of congressional Republicans’ previous attempts to reduce or eliminate taxpayer funding for public broadcasting often labeled left-of-center by critics.

It’s a back-and-forth as predictable as Oscar the Grouch’s enthusiasm for trash.

Efforts to reduce funding for public broadcasting date back to President Richard Nixon, who was irked by what he perceived to be anti-Administration bias on its public affairs programs. In 1973, he vetoed appropriations for the Corporation, which later agreed to shrink its control over programming decisions.

Newt Gingrich led another charge in 1995, labeling PBS “a little sandbox for the rich” and promising to “zero out” funding for public radio and TV. After a public outcry, the Corporation survived the onslaught, and PBS added several new programs apparently aimed at conservatives.

More unsuccessful calls for defunding came in 1999, when it was revealed that Boston public broadcasting station WGBH had shared its donor list with Democratic Party leaders.

And in 2005, CPB chairman (and Bush appointee) Kenneth Tomlinson renewed allegations that public broadcasting are liberally biased. But after a House subcommittee voted to completely phase out the government’s grant to underwrite the programming, a powerful lobbyist showed up in Washington to rally support to reinstate the funding -- Clifford the Big Red Dog. House Democrats held a press conference near the Capitol featuring the cuddly character, kids with handwritten posters, and boxes of petitions from viewers. The full House restored the money.

So, will this year be the one that the funding is finally eliminated? If it is, it will be a spending cut brought to you by the letters G, O, and P.