Will Public Broadcasting Survive?

Article excerpt

The Republicans are chortling over their plans to "privatize" (read: defund) public broadcasting. And gosh, they're having fun. Public broadcasters are just "a bunch of rich, upper-class people who want their toy to play with," says Newt Gingrich, as he works himself into high dudgeon on C-SPAN--a service he dubs a triumph of entrepreneurship but which is really the cable companies' way of thanking Congress for liberating them from regulation in 1984.

Larry Pressler, the South Dakota legislator who chairs the Senate committee overseeing telecommunications, heaps loud and furious scorn on broadcasters who argue their case, saying he's never seen such whiners. His standard for programming success, he is proud to say, is Rush Limbaugh, who brings Americans "the truth."

These guys are having so much fun they haven't got time for the facts. When Newt hammered PBS for conducting a survey showing public support for the service, he denounced it for squandering tax dollars to "lobby." When asked if PBS gets government funds it could "squander," he said dismissively, "I haven't a clue." (It mostly doesn't; it's a membership organization.)

The Republicans are buttressed by think-tank conservatives, including the Heritage Foundation, a vice president of which recently endorsed "killing" public broadcasting for ideological reasons, to "privatize the left."

"It speaks volumes to the American public," said Kate O'Beirne at the National Press Club, "that Congress is back on their side against the cultural elites, the radical social engineers, and the buttinski bureaucrats who insist on telling a self-governing people what is best for them."

That perennial gadfly Accuracy in Media and the editors of Comint are also pitching in. The latest issue of Comint, which monitors every sign of liberalism on the culture front, claims that "the Smithsonian is rapidly becoming an archive of the puerile and paranoid fantasies of the hate American left." Comint despises the Smithsonian, because, among other things, on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Constitution, it sponsored a history exhibit on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. (Comint also charges me with "conflict of interest," because I am involved with a public-TV-funded television program on media literacy and also have a two-decade history of writing about public television. You stand warned.)

Well, this gang is not the first to want to squash public broadcasting. They may not even, despite their best intentions, be the last. Created by liberals, the public broadcasting system has always stuck in the craw of conservatives. But Gingrich and Pressler confront an institution badly scarred by earlier battles, and one that has long been privatized in many of its aspects.

The warfare started early.

When Bill Moyers--then President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary-played midwife to the Public Television Act of 1967, it was hard to imagine how complicated a creature had been created. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, government-funded but private, would coordinate some services for what would become hundreds of noncommercial radio and TV stations. But it wouldn't be allowed to distribute programming, for fear of a too-liberal "fourth network." (That's why National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System grew up as private services offering national programs to stations.)

Only three years later, Nixon Administration officials began sounding alarms about Banks and the Poor, an antiredlining documentary that aired on public TV. Way too liberal, way too political.

Nixon had come into office ready to support public broadcasting. But what he had in mind was culture--classical music, ballet, costume drama--not controversial documentaries that might attack important campaign contributors. Skirmishes led to war, and soon Nixon was trying to defund public broadcasting.

His then-counsel, none other than Antonin Scalia, had to warn him it would be impolitic: "In view of the widespread support for many aspects of public broadcasting outside of public-affairs programming," he memoed the President, "such as Sesame Street, Forsyte Saga, high-school equivalency programs, etc. …