Bush's Broadcast Barbarians

It's time to defend public television again, but let's demand something better in return.

One of the creepier public spectacles—at least as creepy as the televised kidnapping of child-bride-to-be Katie Holmes by Tom Cruise—is the mugging of public broadcasting by Bush administration goons. It's like watching Michael Jackson have his way with Bert and Ernie.

To some degree, public television has positioned itself for abuse. The charter of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting says it must adhere to "objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." Unfortunately, Americans have little appetite for truly "fair and balanced" coverage. If we did, the News Hour With Jim Lehrer would be a smash hit and Fox News would be banished to the media dustbin. In fact, viewers have flocked to the faux "fair and balanced" coverage of Fox that acts as a transparent mask over a right-leaning agenda. Its popularity is partly due to the perception that the rest of the media have a left-wing bias, allowing Fox to offer itself as the feisty counterbalance.

While Fox flourishes, the News Hour crowd grows more tired and gray before our eyes. One of my children once asked me why Jim Lehrer's guests were so boring, and it occurred to me that they were on the show precisely because they were boring. Each weeknight, we get a carefully selected gaggle of talking heads who rarely say anything that could be construed as "unbalanced." They are placeholders representing the Platonic ideals of acceptable, preselected establishment viewpoints: a Republican, a Democrat, and a Republicrat in between.

The problem with public television isn't that it's slanted, it's that its regular public affairs shows routinely drain all the passion out of news and opinion while attempting to meet a standard of "balanced' inoffensiveness. It defends itself by offering us unadorned oatmeal, then claims the moral high ground of being substantive. What about the immoral low ground of making the world seem dull?

Last Friday evening, I attempted to watch public affairs programming on KCTS. I was ever mindful of the wicked liberal bias that has riled the Republicans. What I saw, however, were two programs devoted to touting Wall Street and a news roundtable—Washington Week—that challenges Beltway reporters to compete to see who can offer the most conventional wisdom. The moderator, Gwen Ifill, presides with stolid discomfort, apparently fearful that a guest might offer an untamed, unvetted idea. If this is liberalism, conservatives can sleep soundly in their easy chair.

Between the shows were promotional spots for the kind of programs that have become the meat and potatoes of public television: a 30-year retrospective of the '70s band ABBA and a new, all-woman Celtic music special. It makes you yearn for yet another showing of that documentary about the geezer who lived by himself in an Alaskan cabin, seemingly filmed in real time: "Today the glacier moved another quarter of an inch. Better lay up wood for winter!" Mossback is rooting for the old fart to get jumped by a rabid wolverine.

The failings of public broadcasting, however, don't excuse Bush's political attack on the CPB (See ArtsBuzz). The president's CPB chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, is attempting to install a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee as the organization's new president. According to The New York Times, Tomlinson consulted with a White House staffer in forming a new "independent" ombudsman's office to monitor perceived bias. He has personally OK'd paying a GOP lobbyist to monitor the political leanings of guests on Bill Moyers' show Now, a program that continues, sans Moyers, as one of the brighter spots on public television precisely because it features controversial guests who are highly opinionated and passionate. Late last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to slash funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by $100 million (that's 25 percent). That could translate as cuts of double that percentage for some TV stations. The already troubled KCTS could lose about 10 percent of its operating funds. The cuts would have an impact on public radio as well. Public broadcasting is the administration's new Fallujah, and it's sending in the Marines to flush the place out.

The war analogy is apt because the excuse for these cuts is fiscal discipline—this from a deficit-loving administration and Congress that is draining the treasury in its Iraq quagmire. No wonder the weasel hired to monitor Now categorized Chuck Hagel as a "liberal" guest, seeing as how the conservative Republican senator from Nebraska is one of the few of his party to openly challenge the Bush line on Iraq. The war and its funding have become the leverage by which the administration is seeking to settle old scores and consolidate power. Slashing CPB to restore fiscal responsibility is ludicrous; doing it to control public media for propaganda purposes has logic to it.

So while much of public television's programming is lame, we must once again wearily mount the barricades to defend its right to be lame. But if the fight is won, it's time to press for more extensive reforms. The CPB was also supposed to promote diversity and creative risk taking. We should consider increased federal funding for a wider variety of independent programs and channels, content that would give the taxpayers more bang for the buck.


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