Save Public Television:
Pull the Plug on PBS Bureaucrats
excerpted from the book
Wizards of Media OZ
by Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
January 18, 1995
It's the bombast season again in Washington as another debate
over public broadcasting blows hot and blustery-with both sides
promoting bogus claims.
While Republicans move to cut federal funds for public TV
and radio, public broadcasting executives declare their dedication
to balanced, non-commercial programming.
First, let's review the nonsense coming from right-wing critics.
"One of the things we're going to do this year, I hope,"
says Newt Gingrich, "is to zero out the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting, which has been eating taxpayers' money."
"Eating taxpayers' money" to the feeble tune of
about $1 per American each year, CPB disburses $286 million of
federal money to public broadcasting, for program production and
local stations. The federal government, which devotes almost $200
million yearly to military bands, spends far less on public broadcasting
than most Western European countries.
Let's privatize public TV and sell off CPB to private business,
say Gingrich and his allies.
In fact, public television is virtually privatized already.
Take PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, long underwritten by such
companies as Pepsico and Archer Daniels Midland. Last month [December
1994], two-thirds of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions was purchased
by a subsidiary of TCI, the cable TV giant.
Today, corporations contribute more to public television than
the federal government does. With grants earmarked for specific
programs, large businesses and foundations increasingly determine
which "public TV" programs are produced-and which aren't.
Thanks to big money backers, William F. Buckley's Firing Line
is a PBS institution, though it has few viewers. But controversial
or anti-establishment programs with sizable audiences have been
dropped-for lack of a corporate sponsor ("underwriter"
in PBS jargon).
Public TV is biased toward the left, Republicans claim.
A 1993 MacArthur Foundation study of public affairs programming
on PBS proved just the opposite. Counting the occasional Bill
Moyers special or leftish documentary, PBS stations on a weekly
basis tilt heavily toward conservative and corporate views. Three
regular programs cover the business agenda-Nightly Business Report,
Adam Smith's Money World and Louis Rukeyser's Wall street Week;
none cover the agendas of groups that often conflict with big
business, whether labor, consumer or environmental.
Bill Buckley's is one of three weekly politics shows hosted
by rightists; none are hosted by leftists. The one weekly PBS
program aimed at African-Americans-Tony Brown's Journal-is hosted
by a Republican. And, studies document, middle-of-the-road shows
like MacNeil/Lehrer are also biased toward elite opinion.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are savvy enough to have learned
that the more they pressure PBS every year or two (threatening
to cut funds), the more conservative the programming gets. Former
Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, for example, will soon be hosting
her own PBS miniseries; last year, neo-conservative Ben Wattenberg
launched his weekly show, Think Tank, funded by right-wing foundations.
Which brings us to the hypocritical rhetoric emanating from
Washington's PBS bureaucrats. Now fighting for their jobs, Ervin
Duggan and Richard Carlson, the presidents of PBS and CPB, have
voiced unswerving support for non-commercialism and for TV accessible
to working people and the poor. Duggan recently blasted a "tawdry
popular culture, driven by market place values."
But in the last year, national PBS executives have lavishly
funded a weekly game show while shunning weekly programs like
Rights & Wrongs (about global human rights) and We Do The
Work (about workers and unions). They've repeatedly rejected Oscar-winning
documentaries-most recently Defending Our Lives, about battered
women. Meanwhile, corporate ads on PBS keep growing longer-now
nearly indistinguishable from those on the "tawdry"
Because they've made decision after decision putting the needs
of corporate donors ahead of viewers ill-served by commercial
TV, the PBS bureaucrats now lack vital constituencies that could
be fighting in their behalf.
Beyond the shallow debate in Washington, possible solutions
exist-if we can build a new locally controlled, financially independent
structure for public broadcasting. What's needed is more public,
and less private, money.
Here's how: Although Newt Gingrich never challenges the huge
subsidy that taxpayers provide to private TV and radio stations,
the federal license to broadcast is like a license to print money.
If these stations paid a commensurate license fee, big funds could
be collected for non-commercial broadcasting. A tax on commercials
could also reap millions. Such measures would ensure steady funding
that politicians couldn't obstruct.
Who should get the money? Local public stations-with democratically
elected boards. Adequately funded stations would find or produce
the programming that suits the diverse needs of their local communities-needs
unmet by commercial stations.
For those of us who believe in the promise of public television,
maybe it's time to pull the plug on the national PBS bureaucracy.
of Media OZ