Time to Unplug the CPB
(Corporation for Public Broadcasting)
by Steve Rendall & Peter Hart
Extra, Oct 2005 - Fairness and
Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Veterans of the battles over public broadcasting
know the script by now: Right-wing Republicans denounce NPR and
PBS for being too "liberal," threatening to cut their
federal funding. Public broadcasting's defenders rally to "save"
Big Bird and the like.
The difference this time around, though,
is significant. The right-wing Republican is not a politician
per se. He's Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the government-funded
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and thus the man in
charge of distributing federal dollars to public broadcasters.
Tomlinson's charges about the liberal
bias of public broadcasting coincided with a congressional attempt
to make deep cuts in the CPB's operating budget. The CPB provides
approximately $400 million a year to NPR and PBS-about 15 percent
of the two entities' combined budget.
The attempted cuts sparked significant
protests, and on June 23 the House of Representatives voted to
partially restore funding-considered at least a partial victory
for the liberal and progressive groups who had called for restoring
CPB funding. Soon thereafter, a Senate Appropriations Committee
vote made the full restoration of CPB funding very likely.
But amidst the clamor over "saving"
PBS, more important questions remain overlooked: Is public broadcasting
delivering on its promise? Do PBS and NPR really serve as a true
alternative to commercial broadcasting? Does the CPB really, as
its mission statement proclaims, "encourage the development
of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses
the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly
children and minorities"?
The honest answer to each of these questions
is no. Over the years, FAIR's studies have found a distinctly
pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt in PBS's and NPR's national
news and public affairs programming (Extra!, 9-10/93, 9-10/99,
5-6/04). Though PBS is mandated to present a wider spectrum of
opinion than for-profit media, it is often hard to distinguish
the guestlists of public broadcasting's programs from those of
their commercial counterparts. And a big part of the reason public
broadcasting has failed to live up to its potential is that the
LCPB has become a tool used by congressional conservatives to
restrict programming within narrow political limits.
Media activists, independent producers
and public broadcasting advocates need to ask themselves whether
CPB funding is needed to keep public broadcasting afloat-or whether
that government support compromises the very independence of PBS
and NPR, and prevents them from ever fulfilling their promise.
PBS's conservative tradition
The debate over the state of public broadcasting
relies for its starting point on the tired, baseless charge that
PBS and NPR harbor a left-leaning bias. Mainstream media discussions
usually pit right-leaning critics against public broadcasting
officials-thereby excluding progressive critics of the current
system. A July 17 Washington Post article headlined "Fairness
in the Balance: Public Broadcasting Is Under Scrutiny; Neither
Side Seems to Like What It Sees" included conservative public
broadcasting critics like the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot,
Cato's David Boaz, Rep. Ralph Regula (R.-Ohio) and National Review's
Jonah Goldberg. Their views were "balanced" by insider
defenders of public broadcasting-PBS vice president John Wilson
and NPR vice president Ken Stern.
Similarly, a debate about PBS on PBS's
own NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (6/21/05) pitted George Neumayr of
the conservative American Spectator against Bill Reed, president
of Kansas City Public Television.
Thus the spectrum of debate is limited:
Either you decry the pervasive liberal bias of public broadcasting
(without, incidentally, having to actually prove it), or you uncritically
defend the status quo.
Such debates usually fail to acknowledge
the many shows with conservative hosts and perspectives carried
on PBS stations over the years. For decades, William F. Buckley's
Firing Line was practically synonymous with public broadcasting,
ending a record-setting 33-year run when the conservative National
Review founder retired it in 1999. A rival to Fox News Channel
could be launched with the list of conservatives who have hosted
or produced shows on public television over the years: John McLaughlin
(The McLaughlin Group, McLaughlin's One on One), Peggy Noonan
(On Values), Ben Wattenberg (Think Tank and Values Matter Most),
Laura Ingraham and Larry Elder (National Desk), Tony Brown (Tony
Brown's Journal), William Bennett (Adventures From the Book of
Virtues), Milton Friedman (Free to Choose, Tyranny of the Status
Quo), Fred Barnes (National Desk, Reverse Angle), Morton Kondracke
(Reverse Angle, American Interests) and Tony Snow (The New Militant
Center). (With the exceptions of McLaughlin's and Friedman's shows,
all of these received CPB funding.)
More recently, the progressive journalism
of Bill Moyers' Now inspired the CPB to fund two right-wing programs
in response (FAIR Action Alert, 9/17/04): the uniformly right-wing
Wall Street Journal-produced Journal Editorial Report, which currently
airs on PBS, as well as Unfiltered, hosted by conservative pundit
Tucker Carlson (who left the program in June 2005 to host an MSNBC
But Now (which Moyers retired from in
2004) is more plausibly seen as a balance to the rest of the public
TV schedule. Corporate and investment-oriented shows such as Wall
Street Week, Adam Smith's Money World, The Nightly Business Report
and CEO Exchange have long been a staple of PBS programming. Meanwhile,
shows that might be seen as counterweights to the corporate agenda--shows
featuring the views of environmental, labor, human rights and
consumer rights voices--have had a hard time on PBS, which historically
has practiced a double standard in regard to distributing critical
documentaries and public affairs shows.
For instance, Out at Work, a 1997 film
about workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, was
rejected for distribution by PBS because it was partially funded
by unions (Extra!, 1-2/98). PBS officials rejected The Money Lenders,
a 1993 film about the World Bank, with the following wacky reasoning:
"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." In turning down the human rights
newsmagazine program Rights & Wrongs in 1993, PBS told its
GlobalVision producers, "human rights is an insufficient
organizing principle for a PBS show."
The rules that often block progressive
documentaries from appearing on PBS don't seem to apply to corporate-friendly
shows. Thus in 1993 PBS aired The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil,
Money and Power, a pro-oil industry series funded by PaineWebber,
a financial company with significant oil investments. James Reston:
The Man Millions Read, which aired on PBS in 1993, was a flattering
documentary about the New York Times' most famous pundit, funded
by and produced "in association with" the New York Times.
Rather than finding PBS to be hostile
territory, right-wing foundations like Bradley, Olin and Scaife
have had no trouble funding politically oriented documentaries.
As public TV critic Jerry Landay wrote (Current, 6/11/01), "An
informal scan through PBS public-affairs offerings from 1992 to
the present turns up at least 17 instances in which a single program
or continuing series underwritten or co-funded by BOS [Bradley-Olin-Scaife]
served as a platform for the views of BOS grantees and their organizations."
Even PBS's flagship news show, the establishment-oriented
News Hour With Jim Lehrer, favors the right on a weekly basis.
For years the show has featured Friday segments pitting movement
conservatives such as Paul Gigot and David Brooks against Mark
Shields, a moderate whose own publicity once boasted that he was
"free of any political tilt" (Extra!, 7-8/90).
Federal dollars and the CPB
His obsession with Moyers notwithstanding,
Tomlinson has yet to present any credible evidence of PBS's leftward
drift; instead, he secretly contracted a right-wing ideologue
to produce "studies" of PBS and NPR programming that
were simply laughable. One study tallied "liberals"
and "conservatives" as well as supporters and opponents
of the administration; somehow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and
former Republican Rep. Bob Barr both qualified as "liberals."
(Hagel got a 95 percent approval rating from the American Conservative
Union in 2002, while Barr got 100 percent.) Mainstream reporters
were routinely labeled "Liberal/Democrat" or "Oppose
Administration," seemingly on the basis of profession alone.
One segment about Iraq was coded "Oppose Administration"
even though the researcher summarized it as giving "a guarded
but optimistic view of the situation on the ground."
With or without the dubious research,
Tomlinson and his CPB allies seem intent on changing the political
content of public broadcasting by steering it ever further to
the right-and PBS leadership has traditionally cooperated with
such efforts. As reported by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker (6/7/04),
PBS president Pat Mitchell met with Lynne Cheney and conservative
television producer Michael Pack to discuss a possible PBS series
about Cheney's children's books. Though the project seemed to
stall, Pack was soon appointed senior vice-president for television
programming at the CPB. Mitchell also reportedly responded to
complaints from Newt Gingrich; Auletta reported that after Gingrich
told Mitchell that there weren't enough conservatives on PBS,
Mitchell "proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS town-hall
Interestingly, in the midst of all of
the attention to the CPB's fight against liberal bias, the agency
quietly announced a round of grantees for its "America at
a Crossroads" project (6/27/05). Among the projects receiving
CPB support are The Case for War, a film about neoconservative
Richard Perle made by Perle's longtime friend Brian Lapping; The
Sound of the Guns, a film about former CIA director William Colby
made by Colby's son; Soldiers of the Future, which "will
tell the story of Donald Rumsfeld's recent efforts to transform
America's military"; Warriors, in which American Enterprise
editor Karl Zinsmeister argues that the U.S. military "attracts
a cross-section of citizens motivated by idealism and patriotism";
and Studying Hatred, a film by David Horowitz co-author Peter
Bush administration manipulation of the
CPB and its mission has been so pervasive that a senior FCC official
told the Washington Post (4/22/05) that the CPB under Ken Tomlinson
"is engaged in a systematic effort not just to sanitize the
truth, but to impose a right-wing agenda on PBS. It's almost like
a right-wing coup. It appears to be orchestrated."
As the right-wing assault on public broadcasting
continues, some progressives have rallied to the opposition with
a campaign to "Save PBS." While a desire to protect
the principle of non-commercial media from right-wing attackers
is understandable, these campaigns tend to be largely uncritical
of the system and its funding mechanisms. Such support has been
used by some on the right as proof that public broadcasting services
such as PBS and NPR are indeed liberally biased. Fox News Channel's
Bill O'Reilly (6/15/05), for example, sized up a "Save PBS"
petition circulated by liberal Internet activists MoveOn.org this
way: "There's no greater evidence that those two concerns,
PBS and NPR, partially paid for by we the people, are left-wing
To the contrary, it's evidence of how
desperate progressive activists are for TV programming that acknowledges
their points of view. From Fox News Channel to the 700 Club, conservatives
have no shortage of outlets they can tune in to and feel at home;
they have no reason to be grateful for a video version of the
Wall Street Journal or yet another perch for Tucker Carison. For
progressives, though, a show like Now or the occasional left-leaning
documentary on POV might be the one chance outside of public access
to see their perspective actually framing the debate.
But those programs are, of course, the
exceptions to the rule at PBS. With each successive attack from
the right, public broadcasting becomes weakened, as programmers
become more skittish and public TV's habit of survival through
capitulation becomes more ingrained.
Even if full CPB funding were restored
and political cronies like Ken Tomlinson removed from their posts,
the same potential for using the CPB appropriation process as
a tool to force public broadcasting further to the right would
still exist. If recent history is any guide, it would only be
a matter of time until PBS would need to be saved once again-most
likely at the cost of yet more concessions to the right.
If the CPB 's government funding contributes
to the homogenization and stifling of independent voices on public
broadcasting, how much effort should be made to fight to protect
that funding? As long as there has been public broadcasting, there
have been calls to create an alternative funding structure for
PBS and NPR that would replace the CPB. Different fiscal schemes
have been suggested, from selling unused spectrum to taxing commercial
advertising or television sets (as Britain does for the BBC).
One such proposal, drafted by FAIR founder
Jeff Cohen and Vassar professor William Hoynes and promoted by
the group Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB),
envisions an independent trust, perhaps funded by a tax on advertising
or commercial broadcast license sales, that could generate $1
billion in annual funding for a robust, truly independent public
broadcasting system. While that may sound ambitious, the trust
recommendation pointed to some hopeful signs in recent history:
In 1998, House Telecommunications Subcommittee
leaders Billy Tauzin and Edward Markey designed a bill (later
withdrawn) to create a permanent PBS trust fund, abolish the CPB
and phase out commercial underwriting messages. The Gore Commission
on the social responsibilities of digital broadcasters strongly
recommends that Congress create a trust fund for public television
and eliminate "enhanced underwriting" by corporations.
A December 1998 poll by Lake, Snell, Peny & Associates found
an overwhelming 79 percent of the American public favoring a proposal
to require commercial broadcasters to pay 5 percent of their revenues
into a fund to support public broadcasting programming.
Would creating an independent revenue
source for public broadcasting be hard work? Definitely. But in
the absence of such a fundamental overhaul, advocates who want
the public broadcasting system to be free of political interference
and open to multiple points of view are doomed to be disappointed
again and again.
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