The U.S. Senate has been taken for a ride on public broadcasting by the same right-wing critics who have long sought to destroy any alternative to commercial broadcasting. The current attacks on public TV -- made by people who don't seem to watch the programming -- turn reality upside down.
Many PBS stations air three programs every week hosted by editors who hail from the right-wing National Review: Bill Buckley's Firing Line and John McLaughlin's One on One and McLaughlin Group. PBS's weekly show on foreign affairs, American Interests, is hosted by foreign policy conservative Morton Kondracke. PBS's weekly program aimed at blacks, Tony Brown's Journal, is hosted by a Republican. Up against these five weekly programs, PBS does not offer one weekly show hosted by an advocate of the left.
PBS stations offer regular coverage of corporate news and agendas: the Nightly Business Report, Adam Smith's Money World and Louis Rukeyser's Wall $treet Week. PBS does not offer one weekly news/talk show presenting the agendas of groups often in conflict with big business, such as environmentalists, consumers or labor.
Right-wing critics are targeting the tiny minority of programming that offends them: a dozen or two "leftist" documentaries per year. Given the conservative, pro-corporate bias in PBS's weekly lineup (several hundred programs per year), a strong argument could be made that there are too few documentaries with progressive views.
The "legions" of leftist PBS documentaries are largely a fantasy. The vast majority of Frontline documentaries are centrist or non-controversial (on drugs, terrorism, battered wives, etc.). P.O.V. -- the openly announced "point of view" series -- offers as many human interest films (on pet cemeteries, twins, romance novels, traveling salesmen, etc.) as advocacy pieces.
While conservatives dismiss Bill Moyers' world-class documentaries on our constitutional checks and balances as "propaganda," they never mention PBS's airing of unabashed right-wing agitprop films such as Nicaragua Was Our Home (the pro-contra film produced by Rev. Sun Myung Moon's CAUSA, which funded the contras after Congress' ban), Television's Vietnam: The Real Story (produced by Accuracy In Media), or Hollywood's Favorite Heavy (which portrayed businessmen as TV's oppressed minority, and was heavily funded by Mobil Oil).
Even on public TV, corporate money has come to determine who gets heard and who doesn't. PBS executives admit that their weekly current events lineup favors conservative commentators, but say they can't find funding for an opposing show. Given its list of experts from the political/economic establishment, MacNeil/Lehrer is assured of corporate underwriting and a long life. But programs offering a diverse guest list that includes tough critics of government or corporate policies -- such as PBS's Kwitny Report -- have been taken off the air for lack of funds.
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(from Extra!, September/October 1993)
Public television is theoretically an alternative to commercial stations which are dependent on corporate sponsorship. Due partly to public-funding cutbacks, however, it's very difficult to launch a show on public television unless one or more corporations are willing to bankroll it.
And many of the corporations that give large amounts of money to public TV are companies that have an interest in influencing public policy. Health insurance companies, for example, with a major stake in the health-care debate, support at least four leading public affairs shows on public TV.
The agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which underwrites the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and One on One, is heavily dependent on government subsidies. Not coincidentally, it was one of the largest donors to the Republican and Democratic parties in 1992. In addition to bankrolling public TV programs, ADM has also sponsored NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation and ABC's This Week With David Brinkley.
General Electric, sole backer of the McLaughlin Group, has long been a promoter of conservative ideology. John McLaughlin, in fact, convinced GE chief Jack Welch to bankroll his show over a dinner with President Ronald Reagan -- who got his start in politics doing speaking tours for GE (Esquire, 11/92).