Media Beat
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Originally published Jan. 18, 1995

Save Public Television: Pull the Plug on PBS Bureaucrats

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" commercial networks.

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.

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