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Will public broadcasting survive?

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., we think it would be unwise to attempt an across-the-board cut in CPB funding."

Scalia was right, although public broadcasters could only mobilize sporadic public support. (They did air the Watergate hearings, gavel to gavel, though.) But Nixon managed to further deprive a service that had begun life as a starveling. Nixon canceled plans for an endowment, which would have given the service some financial independence. He politicized the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, turning it into the battlefield it remains today.

He made sure that a large chunk of its funds--a chunk that has only increased over time--would go directly to local stations. He was convinced, correctly, that local stations would be less liberal, on the whole, than Eastern-seaboard journalists and their friends. And he knew that the stations had enough conflicting interests among them to make concerted political action hard. Nixon succeeded in discouraging many public broadcasters from showcasing controversial public affairs.

The creature Nixon batted about was already frail, a survivor of early commercial wars over broadcasting. Unlike most nations, where public broadcasting plays a large role in national life (think of the BBC), the United States early rejected--against the disorganized objections of unions, teachers, and liberals--any noncommercial presence in broadcasting. (Read all about this in my colleague Robert McChesney's blow-by-blow account, Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935.)

Educational interests persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to reserve a small section of FM frequencies for them in 1938, and that was all the public got. Decades of impoverished local programming ensued. Only when the Carnegie and Ford Foundations became advocates of mass media as agents of democracy was public broadcasting born as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

But the system's creators gave it only token funds. Even today, public broadcasting gets just 16 percent of its funds from the Federal Government, and less than half of its funds from taxpayer dollars (including state and local sources). Each taxpayer pays about a dollar a year these days for the funds that Gingrich and Pressler would cut. British citizens, in contrast, ante up about $39 apiece.

Public broadcasting in the United States raises the rest of its money by begging for individual donations, and from corporations that find it a good place to reach viewers who fancy themselves too clever to fall for advertising.

Public broadcasting's original structure and the kneecapping it got from Nixon pushed it in the direction of what broadcasting scholar Erik Barnouw calls the "safely splendid." Of course, television with its high costs and resulting caution is more likely to indulge in the blandly grand than radio, which targets far more demographic groups.

Within a decade, the service was vulnerable to its next right-wing assault, from the Reagan Administration. In 1981, the Office of Management and Budget provided the ammunition, finding there was "no overriding national justification for the funding of CPB," because it only served listeners and viewers. And they "tend to be wealthier and more educated than the general populace." Therefore, "taxpayers as a whole should not be compelled to subsidize entertainment for a select few."

Then, as with Nixon, a combination of old-fashioned infighting and some desperate grass-roots shrieking contained the damage. The Reaganauts only managed to rescind one year of the budget that had been issued three years in advance. (The advance funding was supposed to be a "heat shield," a cautionary measure taken after Nixon's sabotage attempt.) Ever since then, the Corporation's budget has grown steadily, basically staying even with inflation.

But again, the fight provoked new waves of institutional caution. Radio news producers learned to live with representatives from the White House's Office of Public Diplomacy looking over their shoulders. The television people started programming in a resolutely safely-splendid mode (classical concerts, drawing-room theater), for what the CPB's programming head frankly called the "solidly middle class"--those who would pay for memberships.

Since then, the changing electronic marketplace has put great pressure on this mostly private institution. Although a PBS home-video outfit has failed, a catalogue service is blooming. Stations have learned how to develop their own for-profit businesses, such as locator services for video. The New York station WNET is rumored to be in negotiation to lease studio space to tabloid talk-show host Montel Williams. TCI, the largest U.S. cable operator, has become a major backer of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Because of relaxed rules about acknowledgement of corporate donations, outright ads can now run on public TV.

The hustle for money is a drain on the time and energy necessary to produce shows that foster public debate, that encourage democratic participation, that ask the questions that advertisers won't let commercial newscasters ask, that showcase voices commercial broadcasters don't think are marketable.

Public broadcasting has carved out a small but hardy little spot on the electronic landscape. Public TV reaches about 2 percent of television households in prime time, but a third of the public watches it sometime during the week. Public radio reaches about 6 percent of listeners. Both services skew toward the well educated (although vast numbers of children watching Sesame Street rebalance the demographics for television). Both appeal, overall, to a profile that looks very like America, though audiences for individual shows differ dramatically.

Every day, public radio and television demonstrate what advertisers won't pay for: quality children's programming, classical music, blues, bluegrass, investigative reporting, and public forums. They contribute to public life in quiet ways. For instance, public television stations serve 90 percent of the nation's schools and may become the schools' only hope for being part of an "information superhighway." Public broadcasting's technical experiments--with satellites, closed-captioning for the hearing-impaired, descriptive video for the sight-impaired, among others--have set standards for the field.

However frail, public broadcasting has been a place where liberal and even left viewpoints can sometimes get a mass-media airing. This is not a crime for an institution that accepts tax dollars, whatever the conservatives say, and not a demonstration of its "liberal bias." Rather, it is a demonstration of the desperate need in a democracy for noncommercial mass-media outlets, however compromised, to extend the spectrum of opinion past what advertisers like.

What's more, public broadcasting has been a bastion of garden-variety decency and civility, with the notable exception of conservative talk shows. And this is not trivial.

The cage-rattling language of Newt and backers--demonizing liberals and spewing venom about "cultural elites" and "buttinski bureaucrats"--is a calculated weapon in an open cultural war. And it is methodically dismantling civility in public discourse. It uses the "customer-is-always-right" language of a pandering advertiser to leave consumerized citizens weakened before the power of the real elites.

The smugness, the in-your-face barbarism, the pieties about the put-upon populace made to subsidize the middle class--all hallmarks of the Republican war on civility--are behaviors well learned from Rush Limbaugh and other 1990s hatemongers on the airwaves. But angersoaked postures won't solve problems.

As citizens of a democracy, we need to see our own culture in its diversity, to debate the difficult questions, to hear voices we would never otherwise hear but which will, eventually, demand to be heard one way or another. We need as citizens to protect freedom of information from the savage censorship of the ever-hungrier marketplace.

Gingrich and company's attack on public broadcasting could succeed, although this would depend not only on rapid Congressional action but on a willing President who would refuse to veto legislation. Or it could follow the familiar historical pattern: the service limps onward, ever more compromised and beholden to the powers that be. Or, provoked by the outrageousness of the Newtman, the attack could provoke a public debate on what we really want from our public broadcasting. It's about time that happened.

One thing we can be sure of: "Let them eat cable" is not a sensible policy for a mass-mediated, democratic society.

Pat Aufderheide is an associate professor in the School of Communication at The American University and a senior editor of In These Times. She is a consultant to the public television series "Signal to Noise," about media literacy, and to a public-TV-funded pilot program, "Grassroots Journal," about voluntarism in American communities.
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Author:Aufderheide, Pat
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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