Long ago and barely 20 years old, I was a dinner guest at the Georgetown home of Katharine Graham. She had become publisher of the Washington Post five years earlier, when her predecessor (and husband) committed suicide.
Not to despair: But I was in the lion’s den, the only conservative of 20 people seated at adjacent circular tables. I was seated between, and explaining my heresies to, the wives of two liberal icons — Joseph Kraft and Joe Califano.
Mrs. Graham’s eldest son, Donald, after graduating Harvard, had volunteered for the Army and served in Vietnam. The year after this dinner, Don would become a patrolman in an especially tough part of Washington, before becoming a reporter at the family newspaper, then working his way up to publisher in 1979. Donald Graham is a class act as was his bride of a few months, Mary Wissler, who was there at the dinner hosted by her mother-in-law. Though Donald and Mary were not elitist, the elitism that evening was at the roots of national public television and radio.
The dinner celebrated the completion of two taped programs in which Mary and I and three other students were panelists, interviewing historic figures for the embryonic Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL), the first national public television series. We had just interviewed Dean Acheson, the “containment” secretary of state under Harry Truman, and, previously, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann. Our producer was the legendary Fred Friendly who had resigned as CBS News president when the network ran I Love Lucy rather than a pivotal congressional hearing on Vietnam.
My most contentious questions during the tapings would be deleted for the broadcasts. I realized then the bias was unintended; that is, Fred Friendly simply did not grasp the novelty of my perspective or the significance of my questions. He was a professional at what he did, but he and I lived in a different world, and what Americans would later call “public” (meaning taxpayer-funded) television and radio would, in its public affairs programming, be at best, similarly myopic.
JFK’s Federal Communications Chairman Newton N. Minow had accurately characterized American television as a “vast wasteland” of gratuitous violence, dumb comedy, and distasteful advertising. As the token conservative for the Ford Foundation-funded PBL, I would be accordingly skeptical of PBL’s stepchild, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), its founding partly inspired by Minow’s censure of American television a decade earlier.
Over the years, I would be on national and local “public” television and “public” radio several hundred times and treated graciously and fairly. And I recall the forum provided to many friends much older and far more prominent than I, including Bill Buckley and his decades of Firing Line and Milton Friedman in the Free to Choose series. And other friends like Neal Freeman would become board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and one, Ken Tomlinson, was CPB board chairman.
I also recall when NPR fired Juan Williams, hardly a right-winger, because he said, “I’m not a bigot… but when I get on the plane… if I see people in Muslim garb… I get nervous.” NPR remains fixated, presumably, on Episcopalian terrorists and violent Presbyterians. Broadly, there is an unmistakable liberal bias in public television and radio, which has degenerated into a self-censored safe zone. Yet, there is wonderful programming, also, quite non-ideological, funded by major philanthropists and small donors, and also subscribers whose patronage makes the stations more responsive, and all that can continue, without taxpayer money.
When I was in the Soviet Union, one of my communist hosts sarcastically exclaimed, “You Americans, you have the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and so many others. How do you know the truth? With us, it’s simple. We have Pravda!”
The Soviets not only controlled the print media but state-run television and radio. Such is the case in totalitarian and authoritarian societies. As I wrote in a previous column, we don’t want government controlling intellectuals or artists, which is why I supported President Trump’s proposal to end taxpayer funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Recall that Hitler funded the “Aryan” arts, while Jewish artists fled or were murdered. The Soviets favored writers and artists who pledged loyalty to communism; dissenters were exiled to Siberia.
In America we used to have a two-fold higher standard. Is it constitutional for the central government to be in the “nonprofit” business of television and radio? Indeed, many executives at PBS and its stations make a higher salary than the president (of the United States). And Sesame Street entrepreneurs made millions off taxpayer-subsidized television.
And, secondly, is it moral for government’s compulsory (are there any other kind?) taxes to fund not a basic function of government but to support certain television and radio programming, however arguably meritorious, over others?
But these two questions, while hardly moot, are now secondary to the dubious rationale, seemingly obsolete, for public television/radio. The programming oligarchy of CBS, NBS, and ABC and their radio affiliates is long gone. First came cable, then videos, satellite, DVDs, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and hundreds of all sorts of channels, and the internet — with its range and even depth and even mobile phones that download media. Moreover, the technology revolution has drastically lowered the costs of professional broadcast production and enhanced variety. Besides, we have amateurs all over the net.
PBS has aired some wonderful programs — history (the Ken Burns collection) and drama (Masterpiece Theater) and, of course, children (Sesame Street). But, in America, we now truly have something for everyone. “Imitation,” Oscar Wilde noted, “is the sincerest form of flattery.” Thus, much “public” programming is redundant, while other programming can find a place elsewhere, even including streaming. Besides, without government regulation, the free market would have provided authentic diversity years earlier.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s website says 99 percent of Americans have access to public media, but how many watch or listen? The average annual cost for public media, according to the CPB site, is $1.35 “per American.” That calculation no doubt includes “undocumented aliens.” Increase immigration, and we could lower the per capita cost; who cares if they watch? The per capita formulation is the refuge of those who cannot defend the expenditure’s constitutionality, morality or wisdom.
Although taxpayers only provide a limited portion of the budget for public television and radio stations around the country, these subsidies make the stations hostage to politics. That should not be. NPR executives told a major potential donor that NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding.” They were right.