Mar 1 1995

All the Right Moves

How Republicans get their way at PBS

Listening to the likes of new House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Larry Pressler, who have threatened to “zero out” funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), you would think that U.S. public television is promoting a “liberal agenda.” On the other hand, bureaucrats from CPB and from PBS, which gets its federal funding from CPB defend their programming as “balanced.” In this case the truth—and the public interest—is on neither side.

Despite conservatives’ loud complaints about public TV bias, the truth is that PBS has long been slanted to the right—and has been moving rightward at an increasing clip.

For years, FAIR has pointed out that PBS‘s news and public affairs shows have a conservative, pro-business slant, and that most shows rely on sponsorship from big corporations—just like commercial TV. The documentaries that are the focus of so much conservative ire are a small percentage of PBS programming. (See Extra!, 9-10/93.)

The leading talkshows of public TV are either hosted by conservatives (Firing Line, the McLaughlin Group, One on One, Tony Brown’s Journal) or feature in-side-the-Beltway centrists (Washington Week in Review). Most public TV stations feature one daily (Nightly Business Report) and two weekly (Adam Smith’s Money World, Wall $treet Week) programs that serve a business/investor audience, while most stations lack a regular series on labor or consumer issues. PBS‘s main news program, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, slants toward conservative and establishment voices—leading many right-wingers to praise the show’s “balance.”

PBS has a reputation for airing left-leaning documentaries—mainly because the handful of PBS broadcasts that clash with a conservative worldview are singled and attacked by right-wing critics. For example, conservatives in the press attacked America’s War on Poverty, a nuanced, high-quality documentary series (1/16-18/95). Yet little criticism greeted public TVs one-sided right-wing documentary series, Messengers from Moscow, which aired the same month (1/13/95, 1/20/95, 1/27/95, 2/3/95). That series, which suggested that U.S. peace activists were Soviet stooges, was funded by such right-wing foundations as Bradley, Olin and Donner, as well as CPB.

But if public broadcasting is already a friendly arena for corporate and conservative viewpoints, why are the Republicans complaining? To some conservatives, even the idea of public broadcasting–which is, if only in theory, independent of “the market”–is ideologically verboten. Perhaps even more important, Republican politicians are savvy enough to have learned that the more they pressure CPB and PBS every year or two with threats to cut off funds, the more conservative programming gets.

Despite the lack of any public affairs shows hosted by public affairs, for example, PBS has offered, as proof of its commitment to “balance,” a special series called Peggy Noonan on Values. The three-part program, funded by the right-wing Olin Foundation, will feature the Reagan/Bush speed-writer’s take on “the family, faith and culture.”

PBS has given Noonan a lead role in its political coverage, naming her as co-chair of the “Democracy Project,” a PBS project to provide “new and innovative coverage of news and public affairs” leading up to the 1996 elections. Right-wing leaders like Lynne Cheney and Linda Chavez have been named as advisers to the project; no similarly prominent progressive advisers have been announced.

An example of what PBS considers “innovative coverage” was a special called The New Militant Center, hosted by right-wing columnist Tony Snow, described in a PBS press release as “Rush Limbaugh’s favorite substitute host.” Is Limbaugh representative of what PBS considers to be the center?

Another new offering on many public television stations, funded by Olin and other right-wing foundations, is Think Tank, a talkshow hosted by neoconservative Ben Wattenberg (Extra! Update, 6/94). In hearings last summer before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, PBS president Ervin Duggan pointed with pride to the Noonan and Wattenberg shows as evidence of PBS‘s “good faith effort” to respond to conservative criticism. (Duggan said that Wattenberg’s Think Tank “is not a PBS show, but it is being shown on more than 100 public television stations and it is one that PBS would like to have been able to support financially.”)

And Duggan seemed to imply that PBS would be improved by moving even further to the right. Duggan told the senators: “If you have a son or daughter who brings home Cs on the report card and then improves to Bs, it seems to me that it would be cruel to continue harping on the fact that that struggling student is not making all As.”

While offering right-leaning programs to placate the right, PBS has tried to keep programming off the air that might offend conservative sensibilities. PBS refused to fund or even promise to air a sequel to the highly successful mini-series Tales of the City (which included gay characters and adult themes)—a decision that had “more to do with content than money,” according to one PBS staffer (New York Times, 1/29/95) Other acclaimed programs rejected by PBS include the Oscar-winning documentary on domestic violence, Defending Our Lives, and a special on AIDS in the black community, Red, Hot and Cool: Stolen Moments.

In sharp contrast to the reception given to PBS‘s right-wing critics, progressives and public interest groups who have long supported public broadcasting have gotten a cold shoulder from PBS executives. In a letter to FAIR’s Jeff Cohen, for example, Duggan dismissed progressive complaints, saying that shows like Wall $treet Week “provide information important to all Americans, regardless of their economic circumstances,” and that non-conservative view points can be found on William F. Buckley’s shows.

When Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vermont) and others inquired as to why PBS won’t balance its various business programs with even one program oriented toward workers and labor, they were rebuffed.

And when representatives from the House Human Rights Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus asked PBS to review “the need for human rights on public television,” and specifically its rejection of the series Rights & Wrongs, they were met with derision. In his response to D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Duggan attacked the groups’ expressions of concern as inappropriate interference that raised the question of “whether public television is indeed free to make its journalistic and editorial decisions as the 1st Amendment intends, free of political and governmental pressure.” A far cry from Duggan’s promises to Republican senators that his grades would improve.

Despite the rhetoric about defunding CPB, a complete cutoff seems unlikely. As with Gingrich’s suggestion to put the children of women on welfare into orphanages, eliminating CPB seems less a serious policy proposal than a gambit to shift discussion to the right–so that anything less extreme seems reasonable by comparison. Indeed, Gingrich has already backed away from his initial all-out assault on CPB, saying that calls to defund had “maximized the fear level” and “broke down the dialogue” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/30/95).

More likely than the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting will be moves to institutionalize PBS‘s rightward shift: rules that allow the government to correct “imbalance” in programming; financial structures that make public broadcasting even more dependent on corporate donations; restrictions that cut CPB funding for progressive community radio stations like the Pacifica network.

The elimination of CPB, which would cut funding for public and community stations across the country, would be a serious loss. But the transformation of CPB into a mere enforcer of a right-wing ideological agenda may be an even greater threat.