Saving PBS From the GOP

Cut the strings of government funding before right-wingers can destroy public broadcasting.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

May 6, 2005

Republican hacks are slowly strangling National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. And the liberals who are complaining about it have nobody to blame but themselves.

Well, OK, maybe not "nobody." Surely some of the blame lies with the Republican hacks. Let's begin with them, and get to the liberals later.

The chief hack in question is Kenneth Tomlinson, the Republican-appointed head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which controls NPR and PBS. Tomlinson has carried out a low-grade ideological purge, reportedly discouraging journalists there from any projects considered too hostile to business or the GOP. He has proposed placing several fellow Republican loyalists in key positions at the corporation.

Tomlinson told the New York Times, "I frankly feel at PBS headquarters there is a tone-deafness to issues of tone and balance." Everybody favors "balance," of course. The trouble is figuring out what that means. Tomlinson seems to prefer a particularly skewed kind. He has appointed a pair of ombudsmen who can report on the networks' political bias. One of them is William Schulz, a full-blooded movement conservative.

The other ombudsman is Ken Bode, formerly of NBC News and CNN. Bode is obviously the "liberal" choice to balance off Schulz. And I wouldn't be surprised if, in the privacy of the voting booth, Bode — like most elite journalists — pulls the Democratic lever most of the time. But if Bode is a liberal, he is not a liberal in anything like the way Schulz is a conservative. Like most news reporters, he at least tries to be painstakingly evenhanded. (You know, reporting things like "Sen. Jones says that lower taxes and higher spending will result in a budget deficit, but Sen. Smith insists it won't. Back to you, Jim.") Bode even wrote a newspaper column endorsing archconservative Republican Mitch Daniels for governor of Indiana.

Likewise, Tomlinson has chosen to balance off the documentary news program "Now" with a new program featuring punditry from conservative members of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Tomlinson explains, " 'Now' is provocative. The Wall Street Journal program is provocative. Paired together, they create the perfect balance situation." Again, the equivalence is absurd. "Now" may tilt left in its choice of topics, but it practices real journalism: digging up facts, giving both sides their say, and so on. The Journal editorial page feels absolutely no need to constrain itself that way. Neither "Now" nor the Journal editorial page are balanced, in the same sense that neither Margaret Thatcher nor Paris Hilton are virgins.

The hack attack on PBS should come as no surprise. It's President Bush's basic MO. Whereas Newt Gingrich sought to slash or eliminate programs he considered wasteful, Bush turns those programs into arms of his political machine. For instance, Gingrich tried to cut Medicare; Bush expanded it and turned it into a vehicle for hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and other friendly industries. Gingrich tried to privatize PBS; Bush prefers to keep it around and make it more ideologically friendly.

The irony is that, if Gingrich had succeeded, PBS wouldn't be in these straits today. The only reason PBS has to have GOP partisans scrubbing it of any faint signs of residual liberalism is that it has to answer to the federal government. That made sense in the 1960s, when PBS was founded. There were only three broadcast networks, which forced them to cater to the broadest possible public taste. PBS needed taxpayer support in order to provide programming for a smaller, highbrow audience.

In a world of cable television, however, it's far easier to satisfy a narrow audience and still make money. As Jack Shafer of the online magazine Slate has pointed out, the CPB controls a large share of the radio and television broadcast spectrum, which it could sell for a huge endowment and still broadcast on cable.

When Gingrich and other conservatives promoted this plan 10 years ago, liberals railed that it was an effort to kill public broadcasting. But the only real way to kill public broadcasting is to subject it to political manipulation. And the only way to guarantee that doesn't happen is to free public broadcasting from the government.