Prime time pablum; how politics and corporate influence keep public TV harmless.PRIME TIME PABLUM
The staff of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is a private non-profit corporation which is chartered and funded by the United States Federal Government to promote public broadcasting.
The CPB was created on November 7, 1967 when U.S. president Lyndon B. (CPB CPB
see cardiopulmonary bypass.
CPB Cardiopulmonary bypass. See Port-Access cardiopulmonary bypass. ) had a good idea about a year ago. Why not organize a swap of Soviet and American television programs so Americans could gain a better understanding of Soviet life and propaganda? It would be thought provoking and probably entertaining. And in a TV world dominated by "Dynasty,' "Dallas,' and docudramas such as "Mussolini: The Untold Story,' it seemed like a worthy project. The American-Soviet exchange would be just the sort of valuable alternative programming public television had been created to promote.
The exchange has yet to take place. A majority of the CPB's directors, appointees of President Reagan, killed the idea, declaring it would spread unhealthy political ideas. "I mean the Bolshoi is fine. You know, ballet is ballet,' said Richard Brookhiser Richard Brookhiser, an American journalist, biographer and historian, is a senior editor at National Review and columnist for The New York Observer. He is most widely known for a series of biographies of America's founders, including Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur , a member of the CPB board and former speechwriter speech·writ·er
One who writes speeches for others, especially as a profession.
speechwrit for Vice President Bush. "Nature programs . . . little things
Little Things is an original novel based on the U.S. grazing in the tundra. Fine . . . but if we are going to be opening the doors to wonderful Soviet ideas on their own history or something, this is just disastrous.'
Soviet censors would have appreciated the decision. And unfortunately, it is not the only example of narrow-minded ideology shaping public television programming. Ever since Congress created the CPB in 1967, public television has been the victim of manipulation by the White House and corporate sponsors. Unlike Soviet control of the media, this intervention generally has not resulted in U.S. government propaganda. Rather it has made public television soft, non-controversial --and, mostly, boring.
Public television was to have had the freedom to be excellent and provocative. America's love of commercial TV has never wanted, but by the 1960s many viewers and critics agreed that for all of its entertainment value, commercial programming would never cover public affairs Those public information, command information, and community relations activities directed toward both the external and internal publics with interest in the Department of Defense. Also called PA. See also command information; community relations; public information. adequately. Its reliance on the purely mathematical correlation between ratings, advertising, and profits force it to appeal to the greatest number of possible viewers. As a result, commercial TV executives neglect shows that have intrinsic, but little commercial, value.
The only way to combat this natural tendency, Congress and the leaders of several major foundations concluded, was to support a public television network that would give programmers the freedom to produce "quality' TV. In 1967 Congress passed legislation to link dozens of local educational stations in a national network which was later named the Public Broadcasting public broadcasting: see broadcasting. System (PBS PBS
in full Public Broadcasting Service
Private, nonprofit U.S. corporation of public television stations. PBS provides its member stations, which are supported by public funds and private contributions rather than by commercials, with educational, cultural, ). At the same time, Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help provide financial support. Legislators promised a new frontier New Frontier
President John F. Kennedy’s legislative program, encompassing such areas as civil rights, the economy, and foreign relations. [Am. Hist.: WB, K:212]
See : Aid, Governmental for high-quality television where journalists would be free to tackle the important issues of the day.
That was how the myth of public broadcasting was born. It was a myth, PBS executives soon learned, because quality is very much in the eye of the beholder--and those with power had very different ideas from those who produced the shows. Over the years, outside political interference has imposed as many constraints on public TV as commercial sponsors had on the networks. As a member of the CPB staff from 1976 to 1985, I was always aware that our efforts were being evaluated for their political "correctness'.
The politicizing of public television began only two years into its life. The Nixon administration viewed many public news shows and documentaries as "liberal' and anti-Nixon. Nixon's chief of the Office of Telecommunications Policy, Clay T. Whitehead, led the assault, identifying a pattern of "objectionable' public affairs programming
An American ideal of a happy and successful life to which all may aspire: Machine,' which often depicted turmoil over Vietnam; and "Thirty Minutes With . . .,' a weekly interview show. In retrospect, these shows seem remarkable only for how tame they were during the wildly turbulent late 1960s, but they regularly angered Nixon and his deputies. Particularly irksome to the White House was public TV's cast of political correspondents. Presidential speechwriter Patrick Buchanan referred to "our less competent journalistic adversaries,' and other White House officials identified the offenders as journalists Bill Moyers, Martin Agronsky Martin Agronsky was a long-time American news media figure and a fixture of political journalism in Washington, DC in the second half of the twentieth century. He began his career in newspaper journalism, transitioned to radio, and then was successful in television, where he was a , Robert MacNeil Robert Breckenridge Ware MacNeil, known sometimes as Robin, (born January 19, 1931) is currently a novelist and formerly was a television news anchor and journalist who had paired with Jim Lehrer to create The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1975. , Sander Vanocur Sander Vanocur (born January 8 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio) is an American journalist.
In 1950, he earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the Northwestern University School of Speech. , and Elizabeth Drew Elizabeth Drew (born November 16, 1935, Cincinnati, Ohio) is an American political journalist and author. A graduate of Wellesley College, she was Washington correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly (1967-73) and The New Yorker (1973-92). . It is true that these people may have had moderate liberal points of view, but they were in no sense stridently opinionated o·pin·ion·at·ed
Holding stubbornly and often unreasonably to one's own opinions.
[Probably from obsolete opinionate : opinion + -ate1. .
But the administration was so sensitive to even the meekest criticism that it viewed them as a threat. Rather than working cooperatively to assure a broad array of opinions on PBS programming, the administration executed a powerful one-two combination to knock out to force out by a blow or by blows; as, to knock out the brains s>.
See also: Knock disagreeable programs. First, Nixon vetoed additional congressional funding for CPB; second, he decided to use the CPB board, whose members are appointed by the president, to halt critical programs. "We have men on that [CPB] board,' presidential advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan Noun 1. Daniel Patrick Moynihan - United States politician and educator (1927-2003)
Moynihan wrote in a November 30, 1970 memo to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. "Why aren't they looking out for the president's perfectly legitimate interests?' Of "The Advocates,' Moynihan wrote to the CPB, "It seems to me yet another example of a persistent pattern of biased treatment of the administration by public television.' Within two years, the Years, The
the seven decades of Eleanor Pargiter’s life. [Br. Lit.: Benét, 1109]
See : Time shows that the White House found irritating, including "The Advocates,' were off the air.
During this period, the CPB began its perennial attempts to pacify pac·i·fy
tr.v. pac·i·fied, pac·i·fy·ing, pac·i·fies
1. To ease the anger or agitation of.
2. To end war, fighting, or violence in; establish peace in. , rather than ignore, presidential pressure. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. documents released in 1979 under the Freedom of Information Act, the CPB submitted to the White House a schedule of the programs and guest lists for upcoming shows and made efforts to feature participants friendly to the administration. The memos reveal a cynical, concerted effort to blunt criticism of the administration. CPB staff members met regularly with White House representatives to assure them that unpalatable programs were banned.
Nixon made his displeasure public in his veto message, which focused on program costs and the excessive salaries of PBS news people. Congress subsequently passed a lower level of funding for all public affairs shows. Nixon also forced out John Macy John Williams Macy, Jr. (April 6, 1917 - December 22, 1986) was a United States Government administrator and civil servant.
Born in Chicago, he received a B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1938. In 1938 Macy moved to Washington, D.C. , CPB's first president, as politically unacceptable.
Although political intervention continued under Presidents Ford and Carter, the late 1970s provided an opportunity for some rebuilding of the CPB public affairs department. A modest documentary fund was established in 1978 to pump a few public affairs programs into the PBS pipeline. In the early 1980s, before the Reagan administration was able to appoint a majority of the 10-person board, a professional broadcaster, Edward Pfister, took over as CPB president. He deserves credit for pushing for increased public affairs programming. Pfister was responsible for "Frontline,' public TV's only regularly scheduled documentary show, which still runs; the hour-long MacNeil-Lehrer news show; and "Vietnam: A Television History,' an award-winning 13-part documentary.
Reagan takes his cut
But now, with the same spirit and some of the same personalities of the Nixon administration, the Reagan administration has renewed the effort to emasculate e·mas·cu·late
tr.v. e·mas·cu·lat·ed, e·mas·cu·lat·ing, e·mas·cu·lates
1. To castrate.
2. To deprive of strength or vigor; weaken.
Deprived of virility, strength, or vigor. public affairs. In its first budget plan, the Reagan Office of Management and Budget The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), formerly the Bureau of the Budget, is an agency of the federal government that evaluates, formulates, and coordinates management procedures and program objectives within and among departments and agencies of the Executive Branch. proposed the total elimination of public broadcasting. If it wanted to survive, the administration said, let it do so by selling advertising, hunting for more foundation money, or letting viewers pay for it. In response, Congress cut funding by $35 million in 1983, a drop from $172 million to $137 million. Even the protection afforded by "advance-year funding,' a buffering device put in place in the wake of the Nixon purges, failed as Reagan won a recision re·ci·sion
The act of rescinding; annulment or cancellation.
[Obsolete French, from Old French, annulment of a judgment, from Latin rec of money already authorized. This congressional cave-in cut deeply into already lean budgets. Among the first casualties were news and public affairs programs; in some cases entire staffs and departments disappeared. The Boston and San Francisco stations eliminated their news operations, and West Virginia dropped 80 percent of all its news coverage.
In a 6-4 vote, the Reagan-controlled CPB board in 1984 deposed three-term Chairperson Sharon Percy Rockefeller, replacing her with Sonia Landau, a skilled political in-fighter, who headed Women for Reagan/Bush ("Reagan Women Do It Twice') and once took on Ed Koch as a congressional candidate in New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of . The ouster ouster n. 1) the wrongful dispossession (putting out) of a rightful owner or tenant of real property, forcing the party pushed out of the premises to bring a lawsuit to regain possession. of Rockefeller turned out to be more than a clash of two strong personalities, although it was that, too. The boardroom brawl clearly illustrated the partisan division within CPB. Landau's conservative supporters voted en bloc to oust Rockefeller, and the broadcasting newspaper Current chronicled the episode with a story headlined "Iron Curtain Falls on CPB.'
Leading the conservative pack, Vice Chairman R. Kenneth Towery, a former aide to then-Senator John Tower, asked repeatedly why public television must focus on controversial issues instead of programs that emphasize patriotism and national achievements. Landau agreed with Towery's sentiments on the proposed Soviet exchange because she was certain that public television programmers would be patsies for Soviet propaganda. Landau said of the local station officials, "We're not dealing with the brightest and the best here.' Landau cited congressional pressure to cancel the exchange, making clear that she viewed the CPB as a "federal agency.' She threw away the original concept that the CPB should act as a "heat shield,' protecting public broadcasters from direct congressional or White House pressure.
Public broadcasters did visit the Soviet Union recently under PBS auspices but without CPB support. The results were not surprising. Talks are progressing on an exchange of "value neutral' programming--science, culture, and nature topics. But even these shows have built-in hazards, warn broadcasters sympathetic to the Reagan approach. One delegate, Steve Kimatian, president of Maryland Public Television Maryland Public Television (MPT) is a not-for-profit, state-licensed public television network which serves the citizens and communities of Maryland and beyond through a variety of broadcast and non-broadcast activities. , pointed out that the Soviet "ideologies and moral values' permeated the proposed cross-cultural programs. He cited as one diabolical example a children's program in which emphasis was placed on individual children fitting into their peer groups. Pfister ended up resigning over the controversy after several bitter verbal exchanges with Landau.
Gagging Bill Moyers
Reagan-era funding cutbacks have aggravated another chronic obstacle to controversial public broadcasting: reliance on corporate sponsors. With less CPB support, PBS and its local stations have become more dependent on corporations and foundations. Corporations have traditionally funded many public TV shows but have generally favored cultural, scientific, and educational programming over public affairs. On occasion, private sector benefactors have attempted to control the tone and content of those public affairs shows they do support.
In 1985, corporations provided PBS with $55 million, compared to $23 million from the CPB. Producers and journalists report that the increased reliance on big business backers has had a tangible effect. Bill Moyers said recently that corporate sponsors called many of the shots in the making of his public TV documentaries. He told Variety that his series, "A Walk Through the 20th Century,' funded by Chevron, was less than it should have been. "I should have been able to air controversial views,' Moyers said. "I wasn't.' He said another show, "Bill Moyers Journal Bill Moyers Journal is the name of an American television news program that provided stories outside the New York City public area on a schedule of news topics and events, such as religion, history, sexuality, geography and more. ,' had its corporate support withdrawn after three "controversial' programs. While I worked at CPB, public TV producers regularly showed programs to underwriters to make sure that they would not offend sponsors. Corporate sponsors declare candidly that they do not throw money away on programs that don't promote a "feel-good' image for the company. PBS officials say they are now having trouble finding sponsors for several documentaries, including one on unrest in the Philippines, one on the civil rights movement in the U.S., and one on black heroes.
Barry Chase, vice president of PBS news and public affairs programming, told Variety, "We'd love to do a program on the history and role of business in America, but who will underwrite that? We're also looking to do a series on Latin America and the Soviet Union, but it is unlikely those will have corporate sponsors, so they may have to be shelved.'
The Right takes AIM
The most concentrated attack on public television in recent years involved the highly acclaimed series, "Vietnam: A Television History.' Coproduced by PBS and WGBH-TV in Boston, the 1983 series won six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, a Columbia/DuPont Award for TV journalism, and the Organization of American Historians' Award. However, Reed Irvine, who heads the conservative organization Accuracy in Media (AIM), did not like the show. With encouragement from members of the Reagan administration, AIM produced a rebuttal rebuttal n. evidence introduced to counter, disprove or contradict the opposition's evidence or a presumption, or responsive legal argument. to the Vietnam series entitled "Vietnam: Op-Ed--An Inside Story Special.' The two-hour AIM show, narrated by Charlton Heston, purported to illuminate "serious errors and distortions' committed by PBS and WGBH. Aired by PBS last July, it did not live up to that promise.
While dissenting views--right-wing or otherwise--are always valuable, the AIM rebuttal was blatantly biased and one-sided. Attempting to prove a leftist left·ism also Left·ism
1. The ideology of the political left.
2. Belief in or support of the tenets of the political left.
left cover-up of the imminent communist threat to American security, the show often wandered away from the topic of the Vietnam series. For example, AIM alleged media distortion of American activities in Central America, a subject never addressed by WGBH.
How did the AIM show get by those at PBS who oversee programming? Chase conceded that the film was "below our standards.' But he defended the show as PBS's chance to offer alternative points of view. The nation's TV critics roundly roasted the AIM film and PBS brass for running it. Meanwhile, the PBS decision infuriated in·fu·ri·ate
tr.v. in·fu·ri·at·ed, in·fu·ri·at·ing, in·fu·ri·ates
To make furious; enrage.
Furious. those at WGBH closely associated with the Vietnam series. Richard Ellison, executive producer of the series, said he believes the Reagan administration pressured PBS to air the show, pointing out that the National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
U.S. independent agency. Founded in 1965, it supports research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities. gave an unusual $30,000 grant to AIM to help produce the show. Chase and Irvine denied administration pressure.
Peter McGhee, WGBH program manager for national productions, commented that the AIM film "sets a terrible precedent for PBS because it means we no longer have a standard to appeal to. [The documentary] did not meet standards that PBS had previously enforced in its role as "gate-keeper . . ..'' Despite the PBS defense that it was simply airing an alternative point of view, the network has dug itself into a pit. As Stanley Karnow, the prize-winning author of the Vietnam series, said, "Is PBS going to let AIM or any other group respond whenever they have a complaint?' Worse, will a fear of political reprisal reprisal, in international law, the forcible taking, in time of peace, by one country of the property or territory belonging to another country or to the citizens of the other country, to be held as a pledge or as redress in order to satisfy a claim. replace professional judgments on public program quality?
More than fur, fins and feathers
After the ideologues and corporate sponsors have their way, what is left on PBS? As viewers know, most public TV stations run as many imported British dramas of the "Masterpiece Theatre' variety as possible. This series, a staple since public TV's early days, is a public relations public relations, activities and policies used to create public interest in a person, idea, product, institution, or business establishment. By its nature, public relations is devoted to serving particular interests by presenting them to the public in the most coup for its corporate underwriter, Mobil. The opulent settings and dazzling costumes make for soap opera at its very best, and such shows will never disturb viewers with topics like brutality in South Africa, poverty in Mississippi, or toxic waste toxic waste is waste material, often in chemical form, that can cause death or injury to living creatures. It usually is the product of industry or commerce, but comes also from residential use, agriculture, the military, medical facilities, radioactive sources, and in our back yard. To its credit, PBS has filled a vacuum by providing musical and dramatic specials not found on the networks. And there is the one area of public television that reaches a diverse audience--children's programming, such as "Sesame Street' and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.' There is money for all these programs; they are safe and sure to please.
The remainder of public TV is what we might call the F Formula programs--fur, fins, and feathers. Programs on Mother Nature and her cuddly brood are a proven route to programming pleasure. It is fine to see tigers and chimps on the "National Geographic Specials,' but don't expect PBS to investigate the world of tax-free enterprises, like the biggest of the publicly-subsidized magazines, The National Geographic. Not when there are whales and birds and giant green things to divert our attention.
The public affairs programming that is around is simply not sufficient, in quantity or quality. Timorous broadcasters, without a twinge twinge
A sharp, sudden physical pain.
To cause to feel a sharp pain. of bad conscience, can sit back on their laurels and take a bow Verb 1. take a bow - acknowledge praise or accept credit; "They finally took a bow for what they did"
accept - consider or hold as true; "I cannot accept the dogma of this church"; "accept an argument"
2. for programs of dance and drama, a few Ivy League football games, some uplifting education episodes, some of nature's friends and a dash of non-controversial documentary.
But whatever happened to those noble goals of improving society through alternative programming? Where are the programs with indepth journalism, with bite? Unfortunately, they are not, by and large, on the commercial networks either. Those broadcasters used to feel they had a social obligation to put on public affairs programming. But when public television came along, they were liberated to concentrate only on the socially conscious programs that also happened to be profitable. There is no one to pass the buck Pass the Buck may refer to:
Public television is obliged to assume a new role in the areas of news and documentaries. The only way to do it is to protect public broadcasters from political and corporate influence. Providing that security will not automatically produce perfect public affairs shows. Several of the shows that Nixon attacked did have a liberal bias. But it is not for the president or Chevron to decide what is good or bad. Broadcasters may err, but they should be allowed to make judgments on which shows will be most stimulating to their viewers.
To acquire the independence it needs, PBS must have more money and insulation. One possibility is to adopt a small excise tax Excise Tax
1. An indirect tax charged on the sale of a particular good.
2. A penalty tax applied to ineligible transactions in retirement accounts. This penalty is assessed by and paid to the IRS.
1. on the sales of radios and TV sets, putting the proceeds into a tamper-proof trust fund. If PBS didn't have to worry about where its next meal would come from, it would be free to cook up a more interesting array of public affairs programs. This freedom would assure that member stations, as well as independents (long denied sufficient funds from CPB and PBS), would have the means to produce works of high artistic and journalistic merit. Having a certain amount of financial independence to start with, PBS could then ask corporations to contribute to a general fund for public broadcasting, rather than underwrite a particular show. Without a wall between the politicians, the corporations, and the broadcasters, public television will continue to fail in its mission to provide alternative programming in the critical area of public affairs.