excerpts from the book

The Decline and Fall of
Public Broadcasting

by David Barsamian

South End Press, 2001


Thomas Jefferson said, "The information of the people at large can alone make them safe." What will happen to democracy if a handful of corporations own, mint, and distribute that information?

Monopoly control of media and the means to deliver information are serious threats to democracy.

[Ben] Bagdikian
"[The media corporations] intricate global interlocks create the force of an international cartel. Power over the American mass media is flowing to the top with ... devouring speed."

The outcomes that Bagdikian describes are happening because the two political parties and governmental agencies are basically captives of the media corporations and genuflect before them.

Public broadcasting [was] established in 1967 during the Johnson Administration ... The founding charter, written by powerful U S. businessmen and philanthropists, called for the public broadcasting system to "be a forum for debate and controversy" and "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard."

Today, most journalists comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. They have become overpaid stenographers to power who compete for the best hair on the air. Instead of watchdogs, they are lapdogs.

According to a study done by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), "Representatives of organized citizen groups and public interest experts made up only 7 percent of NPR sources ...

Susan Douglas, media analyst
I think NPR knows that all you have to do is get one or two ... [progressive]voices on and a small, and I mean small, but very vocal and influential minority, will start raising hell about the left-wing bias of NPR.

Susan Douglas, media analyst
Labor? Do we have a working class in this country? You don't see or hear them.... The dominant image of the labor union ... is some fat, corrupt bureaucratic institution. There's no countervailing imagery that shows what working-class life is like.... What we see and hear is an upper middle-class white view of the world that represents probably five percent of the population.

Garrison Keillor
The Republican revolution that took control of Congress that has absolutely turned politics upside down in this country.

In the legislation adopting the Carnegie recommendations, Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit, nongovernmental corporation. CPB is the conduit for federal monies, which provides funding support to more than 1,000 public television and radio stations across the country. It does not produce programs, but with its hand on the till, it wields considerable power and influence over public broadcasting.

The Carnegie Report ... proposed that funding for this new entity [CPB] be protected from political influence. The report foresaw that if the purse strings were controlled by Congress, then their independence would be threatened, stating: "We would free the Corporation to the highest degree from the annual governmental budgeting and appropriations procedures: the goal we seek is an instrument for the free communication of ideas in a free society.''

However, Congress rejected the commission's advice to provide forward funding for public broadcasting. ... It wanted to keep the new endeavor on a tight leash.

... in the United States, from its inception, the relatively small budget of the public broadcasting system has been hostage to Congress and the White House.

... virtually since its inception there has been constant political pressure to temper public broadcasting and to control its content. One method has been through "flak," consistently pressuring public radio and television through the incessant canard that they have a left-wing bias. It started with Nixon in the 1 970s. In the 1980s, NPR was accused of being "Radio Managua on the Potomac."

Bill Moyers
"What is emerging is not public television but government television shaped by politically conscious appointees whose desire to avoid controversy could turn CPB into the Corporation for Public Blindness."

In its pitch to potential advertisers, PBS encourages businesses to:

Learn how PBS Sponsorship can help your corporate message stand out from the clutter of commercial advertising-and reach your target audience! Through sponsoring PBS programming such as Talking Money with Jean Chatzky, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Washington Week, you not only build your brand and enhance your marketing, you also become associated with the high public image of PBS.

New York Times' commentator Walter Goodman
"Advertising of any sort runs smack against the ideal of public broadcasting as an oasis in a desert of marketing." He decries "the commercials that have grown like sores on this purportedly noncommercial endeavor."

George Washington University School of Business and Public Management professor Thomas Nagy unearthed official documents from the Defense Intelligence Agency,

"proving beyond a doubt that, contrary to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country's water supply after the Gulf War. The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway."

Who is funding public radio and TV? Archer `Daniels Midland, ExxonMobil Corporation, Metropolitan Life, Salomon Smith Barney, and other Fortune 500 companies...

These leading "donors" are major corporations that have a huge investment in the economy, and can use their economic power to leverage program content. Independent producers who approach PBS and NPR for airtime get a much warmer reception when they have an underwriting package in hand. Overwhelmingly, programs that will attract and please corporate underwriters and crucially, won't rock the ideological boat, get access to the airwaves.

Here and there, programming that challenges conventional wisdom gets on PBS or NPR, such as Bill Moyers's "Surviving the Good Times," about two families in Milwaukee affected by plant closures during the highly celebrated U.S. "miracle economy" in the 1990s, or the occasional probing documentary on "P.O.V." But they are the exception and are increasingly infrequent.

Corporate advertising poses one set of problems for public broadcasting. The ideological and political climate that informs the content of programs is yet another concern. A mandarin caste of milquetoasts at each station-only a handful of people, and sometimes just one individual-decides what gets on the air. They are acting as gatekeepers, deciding what we will see and hear.

Let me give you some examples. In 1993, PBS aired "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power," a series funded by Paine Webber, a company with petrochemical oil interests. The main analyst of the series was Daniel Merging, a consultant to major oil companies. Almost every expert featured was a defender of the oil industry. That same year, PBS aired a documentary called "James Reston: The Man Millions Read," a rather flattering profile about the New York Times columnist. The film was funded by and produced in association with the New York Times, Reston's long-time employer. The director and producer of the film was Susan Dryfoos, a member of the Sulzburger family, which owns the New York Times, and the daughter of a former Times publisher. Conflict of interest? Fahggeddaboudit.

Occasionally, you may see a cutting edge documentary on your local PBS station, like Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello's film, narrated by Edward Asner, on the race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards caused by globalization. "Global Village or Global Pillage?" aired on Connecticut Public Television in 2000, but has not been shown in other markets. If PBS doesn't give something its benediction for national broadcast, then it's unlikely that individual stations will break from the network and broadcast a progressive documentary.

Certainly the issue is not a lack of quality programming. In 1995, an Academy Award-winning documentary short on domestic violence by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, "Defending Our Lives," was rejected at PBS. "Defending Our Lives" was filmed in Framingham Prison for Women in Massachusetts and focused on eight women prisoners who had been battered and beaten by the husbands they eventually killed. One of the producers was a leader of a battered women's support group, but PBS felt that this gave her "a direct vested interest in the subject matter of the program" -perhaps because she was against domestic violence. PBS added that "programming must be free from the control of parties with a direct self-interest in that content.''

PBS also declined to air a documentary called "The Money Lender$: The World Bank and IMF," a film by Robert Richter. Why? PBS was concerned that "Even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected."

PBS also turned down "Out at Work," an excellent film about gays in the workplace that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, produced and directed by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, was scheduled to be part of the series "Point of View" ("P.O.V.") before PBS dropped it. One of the subjects of the film is a woman named Cheryl Summerville, who was fired as a cook from a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside Atlanta in 1991 for "failing to comply with normal heterosexual values." Another subject in the film worked as an electrician at Chrysler.

"We found 'Out at Work' to be compelling television responsibly done on a significant issue of our times," PBS Director of News and Information Programming Sandra Heberer wrote. But, she added, "PBS's guidelines prohibit funding that might lead to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content-even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not." Which underwriters? It turns out that 23 percent of the program's $65,000 budget came from Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation and a number of labor unions. The message is unambiguous. Corporations can fund projects, but unions and civil rights organizations cannot.

Another fine documentary that should be much more widely known is "Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq" by John Pilger, an award-winning Australian-born, British-based journalist, which is about the impact of sanctions. But "Paying the Price" will not be shown on PBS. Nor will Pilger's film on East Timor, "Death of a Nation."

"In Search of Palestine," a 1998 film by Edward Said produced by the BBC, has disappeared in the United States, virtually unseen. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, it has been shown all over. A few years earlier, Said was featured in "The Idea of Empire," another BBC production. It was also not aired in the United States. PBS cannot argue that Said is an unknown entity. A veritable Renaissance figure, his books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism serve as the bookends to postcolonial studies. He is also without question the foremost advocate for Palestinian rights in this country, which, no doubt, creates problems for the skittish nabobs at PBS.

"Stories My Country Told Me," featuring the scholar and human rights activist Eqbal Ahmad, has never been on PBS, nor has "Zapatista!" a film about the movement in Chiapas. There's a fabulous series on the drug war called "Dealing with the Demon" by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has also never shown on PBS.

Danny Schechter, a renowned independent producer, wanted to do a series called "Rights an, Wrongs: Human Rights Television." Charlane Hunter-Gault, a prominent African-American reporter who had served for years as a national correspondent for PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, was to be the anchor. When Schechter approached PBS program director Jennifer Lawson with his proposal, she turned him down, saying that h rights was "an insufficient organizing principle for a series.

As Schechter is quick to respond, "And c shows do? And 'Wall Street Week' does? That's what PBS is all about?" Schechter had to undergo the arduous task of pleading with individual stations to air the series. This episode evokes the sagacious words of the great social commentator Lily Tomlin, "No matter how cynical you get, it's almost impossible to keep up."

Eventually, Schechter succeeded in getting the program on some stations. "Rights and Wrongs" won a string of awards, but, strapped for funding, it was discontinued.

In 2000, Haskell Wexler and Johanna Demetrakas made a documentary called "Bus Riders' Union," about organizing bus riders in Los Angeles. It's also not been aired on PBS, even as California has undergone a massive energy crisis that exposes the need for more public transportation. Your best chance of seeing the video is to watch it on the World Wide Web. Wexler, a multiple Academy Award-winner, famous cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime Achievement Award, should get a special prize for having the most documentaries rejected by PBS. Starting with his Academy Award-winning "Interview with My Lai Veterans," through "Brazil: A Report on Torture" and "Target Nicaragua: Inside a Secret War," right up to the present day.

Two more Academy Award-winning documentaries that PBS shunned are Barbara Trent's "The Panama Deception" and Debra Chasnof's "Deadly Deception: GE, Nuclear Weapons, and our Environment." It almost seems that an Academy Award is a disqualification as far as PBS program decision makers are concerned.

Two films have been made on the Seattle/WTO uprising, one called "Showdown in Seattle: Five Days That Shook the WTO," and the other called "This is What Democracy Looks Like." Again, neither has been broadcast. And a multiple award-winning documentary about Noam Chomsky called "Manufacturing Consent" has never been nationally sponsored and distributed by PBS, though it's had screenings around the world.

In 2000 NPR formed an alliance with NAB to block the licensing of microradio stations. According to the New York Times, "National Public Radio prevailed with the assistance of the commercial broadcasters" in putting a bill through Congress that overturned an FCC ruling that would have allowed the licensing of microradio. As the Times explained,

Tucked away in legislation that Clinton signed was a provision sought by NAB and NPR that sharply curtails Federal Communications Commission plans to issue licenses for low-power FM radio stations to 1,000 or more schools, churches and other small community organizations.

The provision, by setting new technical standards and repealing those already determined by the FCC, makes it all but impossible for licenses to be issued in cities of even modest size.... The FCC's low-power radio plan was conceived last January to counter the huge consolidation in the broadcasting industry that the agency's chairman, William E. Kennard, concluded had led to a sharp decline in the diversity of voices on the airwaves. Kennard saw the plan as a cornerstone of his agenda to promote civil rights issues at the FCC....

"This is a resource that everyone has to share," Kennard said in an interview. "We can't allow people who have the spectrum to use their political clout to shut out voices that don't have the same clout. This highlights the power of incumbency. Companies that have spectrum guard it jealously, and they can use Congress to prevent new voices from having access to the airwaves."

This is a serious blow for democracy.

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