Tune In, Turn On, Fight Back

Public television is under attack from within, undermined by a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that is stacked with highly political appointees who think any programming based on “freedom, imagination, and initiative” -- the words are from the first section of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 -- is inherently liberal.

But can they be countered? In May, at a raucous media-reform meeting in St. Louis, Bill Moyers received a rousing ovation when he announced that the current political climate might force him “out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.” Barring that eventuality, the job will be left to progressive groups including Common Cause, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and Free Press. In the weeks leading up to the conference, these groups called for town-hall meetings across the country to drum up grass-roots support for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy at Consumers Union, calls this an effort to “try to bring more input back to the user and consumer, the citizen.”

The coalition is pushing that conversation out of the Beltway, which is smart. Yet while these groups have seized the mantle of righteous indignation, it's far from clear that they know where they're going with it. That's too bad. Because preserving public broadcasting isn't just a liberal problem. It's a democracy problem. If the debate isn't reframed, it risks being lost before the first town-hall meeting is gaveled to order.

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It's true that PBS supporters have their work cut out for them. They've been on the defensive since Ken Tomlinson, an ally of White House strategist Karl Rove, assumed the chairmanship of the CPB in September 2003. Under the guise of ferreting out “liberal bias” and creating “balance,” Tomlinson quietly allotted $10,000 toward investigating Moyers' old program, NOW. He hired a dubious pair of ombudsmen (even though, ostensibly, the CPB doesn't program news), created separate programming hours for conservative talking heads such as Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Paul Gigot and Tucker Carlson (about to flee to a cushier MSNBC lot), and denounced a show about an animated rabbit who encountered lesbian moms.

It's hardly the first time that PBS has been on the defensive. The history of bashing it could fill a special edition of Trivial Pursuit. Sample questions: Which White House was advised that “we should oppose the funding of controversial public-affairs programming with tax dollars”? Nixon, 1973. When did a CPB board member, upon resigning, receive a standing ovation from public broadcasters after he called for bringing together those “who may be in disagreement” while still “safeguarding the independence” of public broadcasting? It was 1985, and the issue was whether it was acceptable to send public broadcasters to Moscow during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan's appointees were opposed. When did The Christian Science Monitor write that PBS was “bowed but unbroken”? In 1995, after Newt Gingrich attempted to “zero out” funding for PBS.

Gingrich backed down, and he later admitted to PBS' Charlie Rose, “If I had to go back and redo the last six months, I would enter the PBS debate totally differently.” The lesson Gingrich learned in defeat is one that could prove awfully useful to progressives today: that the PBS audience is far broader than its right-wing antagonists believe. Indeed, a February 2004 Roper poll found that Americans trust public broadcasting more than any other commercial medium, and more than any other government institution save the Pentagon.

“Time and time again, what has saved public television is not something right that public broadcasting has done,” says Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University's School of Communication and the director of AU's Center for Social Media. “It has been the broad support of American viewers, many of whom are conservative but who like ‘quality television,' or don't want Masterpiece Theatre taken away, or like Nova, or like Big Bird -- and actively like it and feel insulted by commercial television. And those people are really bipartisan.”

That's exactly how it was supposed to be. “The vision for public broadcasting grew out of a Carnegie Commission report,” says University of Illinois media professor Robert McChesney. The vision was programming others saw as unprofitable: “Public broadcasting would do the edgy stuff, intentionally take chances, and not be restricted in the range of debate.”

But the CPB's board was also to be appointed by the White House, a structural flaw that politicized this ostensibly apolitical panel from the outset. Nixon acolytes, including a young Antonin Scalia, wielded the specter of PBS' “liberal bias” as a cudgel against any innovative or diverse programming that went beyond children, the once and future mainstay of public television. Nixon vetoed funding for PBS in 1972. The consequence of that veto, explains William Hoynes, a Vassar professor and the author of Public Television for Sale, “has been [PBS'] general susceptibility to political pressure and effort to be conflict-averse.”

Jerold Starr, the executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, which has called for the restructuring of public broadcasting into a “public trust” immune from politics, says the culture of timidity has created a veritable “state of siege” at PBS. A conflict-averse PBS didn't stop Republicans from slashing federal funding again and again, forcing it to turn increasingly to corporate underwriting.

The crucial difference between 1971, 1985, 1995, and today, though, is that the “liberal bias” critique of PBS is now coming from within the CPB itself. Further, it's not an effort to dismantle but to neuter. “No one on the respectable right that I'm aware of is talking about killing public broadcasting altogether,” says James Ledbetter, author of Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. Republicans have learned, says Ledbetter, that “it's much easier to control public broadcasting politically than it is to kill it.” The board of the CPB has been packed with diehard Republicans -- Aufderheide calls it the “school-board strategy” -- like Gay Hart Gaines, the former head of Gingrich's GOPAC, and Cheryl Halpern, a lifelong GOP donor who promised Senator Trent Lott in her confirmation hearings that she would investigate bias.

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And so, what of the plan to fight back? To Josh Silver of Free Press, a media-reform organization, “a long-term strategy” is required to maintain that trust and to fight spurious charges of bias. “What's needed by PBS station managers and [PBS President] Pat Mitchell is a solid public record of documenting that the American people need a broader range of debate,” explains Silver. “We have to be realistic that this is a long fight … . We need to come up with a comprehensive slate of tangible policy proposals to pass through Congress and fundamentally restructure broadcasting.”

In interview after interview, liberals, pro–PBS activists, and media reformers talk longingly of congressional acts that would protect PBS from conservative intervention that clearly contravenes the mandate of the CPB. The CPB, grouses Lauren Coletta, director of campaigns at Common Cause, should be drawn up by a “neutral party,” like the head of the Library of Congress. Silver agrees. “The only real solution,” he says, is creating an “independent funding mechanism.” But Congress is hardly ready to restructure and nurture PBS or the CPB: In early June, a House appropriations panel voted to slash funding for both, a move that would eliminate entirely PBS' funding for Ready to Learn programming.

The coalition activists -- who have come together before on media-ownership issues -- are ambitious. But for now, they're a little unfocused. No one seemed to know when, for example, the town-hall meetings would be held, who would attend, and how what was ultimately produced would be used. And if this is a 30-year strategy, as Silver alluded to in conversation, when does it start?

Some think it's already too late. Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, which will not take part in the town-hall meetings, argues that technology may render the current debate moot. He advocates “recreating public broadcasting” by skirting the existing system and seizing the opportunity of new technologies like broadband media and the expanded digital cable system. “We are on the defensive,” Chester says. “If [progressives] don't use the next few years to create a meaningful intervention, we will be more marginal than we are today.”

Sighs Former Federal Communications Commission Chair Reed Hundt: “You can't ever win the battle of, ‘No, I'm not a liberal.' You are always in the defensive mode. The real concern about what Tomlinson is doing is that he is in effect, I don't know if it's intentional, in effect he is discouraging stations from dedicating any resources to uncovering truth and reporting it.”

It seems pretty intentional. The question is, are we doing enough to stop him?

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.