The issue’s cover story on public broadcasting and CPB points out a fundamental irony: While the right perennially attacks public television and the left traditionally defends it, PBS has over the years done a great deal to placate conservatives while generally giving progressives short shrift.
One could observe that this is simply a case of the squeaky wheels getting the grease. But why do the wheels on the right-hand side squeak so much more? In large part, it’s a matter of how conservatives and progressives view media, and the concept of speech itself.
In general—though exceptions have always abounded on both sides—the left has traditionally put more emphasis on free expression, while the right has tended to support unanimity as a value. That’s why mandatory pledges of allegiance and state-sponsored prayers are conservative causes, and why the American Civil Liberties Union is seen as a liberal group despite its support for the rights of speakers across the political spectrum. It’s not for nothing that “Shut up!” has become one of Bill O’Reilly’s catchphrases.
On public broadcasting, the progressive strategy has been to strive toward inclusion while conservatives have focused on exclusion. The right has focused its attention on a handful of programs that it dislikes—news and documentary shows like Frontline, POV and Now, cultural programming like Tales of the City and Tongues Untied, even children’s shows like Postcards From Buster. Right-wingers are rarely coy about their preference that such shows be off the air, and have not hesitated to use the threat of “pulling the plug” to try to get their way.
By contrast, even a show like the Journal Editorial Report—which is essentially an uninterrupted infomercial for the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s hardcore conservatism—hasn’t prompted much clamor for cancellation from progressives. The idea of threatening to cut off federal funding for PBS in order to get the Journal Editorial Report off the air would probably never even occur to most left-leaning media activists.
As a progressive myself, I feel the left has taken the moral high ground in the public TV debate—but it’s hard to deny that the right’s strategy has been more successful. The answer is not to give up on our ideals—but progressives have got to find a way, consistent with our values, to make it clear that we are as serious about demanding intellectual diversity as the right has been in seeking ideological purity.