Presswatch

PBS, R.I.P.

By From the April 1995 issue

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It is time to finally settle the argument about public broadcasting: End federal funding now. Congress had no business offering it in the first place. Lost in all the noise now about the peril to Big Bird and Barney is the indisputable fact that public broadcasting is part of the press, and the press is supposed to be independent of government. The Founding Fathers recognized this with the First Amendment, and everyone else should now recognize it, too. There is simply no way around this. The arguments about public broadcasting will remain, intractable and insoluble, so long as it stays on the dole.

The arguments going on now are misplaced. Sen. Larry Pressler, the chairman Of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent out a questionnaire asking, among other things, how many members of the staff at National Public Radio, if any, had "previously worked for evangelical Christian associations." He also wanted to know if anyone at NPR had ever worked for the Pacifica Foundation, the loony left propaganda font. Predictably, liberals got upset. Arthur Kropp, for one, the chairman of People for the American Way, said that Pressler was on a "witch hunt." Pressler, embarrassed, withdrew some of his questions. The New York Times said the criticism he received was "fully justified," and that he had been "perilously close to a witch hunt." Pressler had been inspired, the Times said, by the enemies of public broadcasting, who see it as "elitist, leftist and unworthy of Federal funding."

Sanctimony reached high tide there. Neither People for the American Way nor the Times becomes alarmed when anyone asks similar questions in the name of "affirmative action." NPR is famous for the left-liberal coloration of its programming, and Pressler was trying to find out if conservative Christians were represented there, or whether they were excluded. In other words, he was looking for "balance." Liberals may cherish this at other institutions that receive federal money, but apparently not at NPR. On the other hand, Pressler was unquestionably on shaky ground. NPR is a news organization, and democratic practice holds that the religious or political backgrounds of journalists are simply not government's concern.

Federal funding, of course, made the dilemma inevitable. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, he committed the government to paying journalists' salaries. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, was established to launder the money. Federal funding supposedly would pass through CPB and be magically sanitized, all hint of its origin removed, before it was sent on to PBS and NPR. This was a way of getting around the First Amendment, or perhaps pretending it did not exist. The First Amendment explicitly prohibits Congress from abridging freedom of the press; implicitly it prohibits Congress from establishing a news organization. PBS and NPR are news organizations, and although neither is likely to admit it, they make programming decisions with covert glances at Congress, especially PBS. This means their freedom is abridged.

It is widely recognized that PBS news documentaries lean left. A responsible survey by the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs found, in 1992, "that [their] balance of opinion tilted consistently in a liberal direction." Nonetheless, even casual viewers must notice that the documentaries tilt at a less severe angle now than before. In the 1980s, for example, PBS gave us "The Africans," nine hours of moldy Marxism and anti-Americanism that blamed the West for all of Africa's problems. It also gave us documentaries that presented Fidel Castro as a social democrat and the Sandinistas as agrarian reformers.

It is not quite that way any longer. The old tilt may still be apparent, but PBS programmers are sensibly aware of who pays their bills. As political power has moved from the left to the right, they have moved, too. "The Africans" has given way to Ken Burns's series about baseball. Meanwhile, "Messengers From Moscow" blames the old Evil Empire for the Cold War; Peggy Noonan explores values, and William F. Buckley, once consigned to odd hours when station managers thought no one was watching, presides over debates in prime time. If the political power keeps moving, PBS will one day present documentaries that extol the pro-life movement, and insist there is a right to bear arms.

That might seem like a nice change, but it really would be short-sighted to think so. Please Trent Lott in one session of Congress, and you might want to please -- God forbid -- Paul Wellstone in the next. The Framers would not have been amused. Proponents of federal funding continue to argue that CPB acts as a "heat shield" against government interference, but the phrase has no meaning. Any institution that accepts government money accepts government interference. However benign the intentions of the people who dreamed up public broadcasting -- they all seemed to be from either the Ford Foundation or the Carnegie Corporation -- they put government in a place where it had no business.

Their spiritual heirs want it to stay there, but they can not explain why it should. Public broadcasting would survive without federal funding. Since 1968, it has received more than $4 billion from Congress, and despite the constant poormouthing, it is thriving. PBS financial figures are always murky, but this year it seems to be operating on a budget of some $1.5 billion, with about 14 percent of it coming from Washington. Most of the rest comes from corporations, foundations, and viewer donations. If PBS lost the federal funding it would have to close some of its 351 stations, generally tighten its belt, and follow more sensible commercial practices -- all of which it ought to do, anyway. The Licensing Letter, a trade journal, estimates that "Sesame Street" spins off $800 million annually in merchandising sales; it puts the figure for "Barney & Friends" at $500 million (other estimates are much higher) and for "Shining Time Station" at $250 million. Little of this finds its way back to PBS. Obviously, it should.

Meanwhile, in the debate about funding, hardly anyone mentions NPR, which depends far more on government assistance than PBS, and might shut down without it. Missing from the debate is any reference to American Public Radio, with which NPR is sometimes confused. American Public Radio does most of the things NPR does -- operating stations and producing programs -- but it does so without federal funding. If NPR is serious, it could do the same. If it is not, there is no reason to keep it. "All Things Considered" is not the national treasure its supporters insist it is, and programs from the Pacifica Foundation are often indistinguishable from ravings. Congressional advocates of government assistance do not draw attention to NPR. Possibly they feel embarrassed.

They do, however, draw attention to children, and now make them the centerpiece of their argument for funding. "Make no mistake about it," Nina Lowey, a New York Democrat, claimed at a House hearing, "this debate is about Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Barney and Kermit, and the new Republican majority that would put them on the chopping block." In fact, the new majority could not put them on the chopping block even if it tried; the programs Lowey alluded to are among those least dependent on federal funding. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, made a similarly extravagant claim about PBS and the kids on the CBS show "Sunday Morning": "When polled, over 70 percent of all black, white, Asian and Hispanic parents said it was the channel they kept on all day long. It's not elitist. It's American."

Markey did not identify the pollsters, but if their figures were correct, then PBS would seem to be attracting a larger audience than the commercial networks. It does not, of course, and it may be that Markey was only worked up over Newt Gingrich. The Speaker has called public broadcasting elitist, and said it was run by "rich upper-class people." He might have had Sharon and Jay Rockefeller in mind. Two days after the Times quoted Gingrich on the rich people, Mrs. Rockefeller debated Sen. Pressler on CNN. Pressler said some people in public broadcasting were paid $500,000 to $600,000 a year. Mrs. Rockefeller said she doubted it, although she sounded uncertain, and you had the feeling she would go home and check it out. Mrs. Rockefeller was a twotime chairman of CPB, and now she is president of the PBS station in Washington. Sen. Rockefeller, of West Virginia, is a member of the Commerce Committee. When the Democrats controlled the Senate, he would lobby Ernest Hollings, the committee chairman, and Robert Byrd, the majority leader, who was also from West Virginia, and public broadcasting did quite well. It seems likely that if Mrs. Rockefeller had chosen a different line of work, her husband would not have been so interested.

There is a clubby atmosphere about public broadcasting. Club members look out for their own. "Too bad he didn't say a word or two on behalf of public broadcasting, currently under attack by a crowd of power-drunk crackpots who want to exterminate it," Tom Shales, the Washington Post television critic, wrote in his review of Clinton's speech on the State of the Union. Shales neglected to mention that he also reviews movies for NPR. You may get your best sense of the club, though, by watching PBS itself. Charlie Rose's interview show is a good place to start. Since the election, club members have been showing up there regularly, pleading both for themselves and for public funding.

Bill Moyers was a lovely example. It is widely known that he once considered running for president, and when he talked to Charlie he seemed to be considering it again, or perhaps starting his own third party. He denounced both the Republicans and the Democrats, and said that "the masses were waiting for a real party to answer their problems." Charlie looked thoughtful at that. "Who is asking the fundamental questions?" he wanted to know. Moyers replied, "No one who has a national voice."

This was not quite a declaration of intention, but it was close to a trial balloon, and PBS was giving it lift-off. Moyers said that PBS treated its "audience as citizens," and now "the radical right was swinging its wrecking ball," doing its best to destroy it. He also said that PBS was not run by "a small group of upper-class men in Washington," and distanced himself from the Rockefellers. Moments later he gave Charlie a bouquet of yellow roses. It turned out it was his birthday. Charlie looked touched, and recalled that he once had been Moyers's executive producer.

Charlie also interviewed David McCullough. McCullough wrote Truman, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and as Charlie said when he introduced him, he "is no stranger to public television." Indeed, he is probably PBS's favorite historian, and he has often appeared in its series. Now he is writing a book about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. McCullough said he had been attracted to Jefferson "as a sort of lesser Leonardo -- our, our own genius, who became a political figure -- since I was a young man, a boy really." Eventually, though, the big question came: What about public television?

McCullough took off on that, talking about Mr. Rogers and how he reached out to children. Then he delivered his peroration:

And why in the world people want to come in and dismantle or hamstring public television -- the one place in television where we're trying to do something better, trying to do something worthwhile -- I don't know. And, and to, to cite examples of misuse of funds, inappropriate or, or tawdry productions that result because of government involvement . . . to me it would be like saying, "Well, there's been a cheating scandal at one of our military academies. Close it down."

This from a Jefferson scholar. Jefferson did not oppose military academies -- West Point began when he was president -- but it is hard to imagine him endorsing PBS. He was adamant about separating government and the press, and he supported the First Amendment. It begins, "Congress shall make no law," and surely Jefferson would have thought that this rules out federal funding for public broadcasting.


John Corry, a former New York Times media critic, is the author of My Times: Adventures in the News Trade (Grosset/G.P. Putnam's Sons).

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John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.