Jun 1 1987

PBS Reviews Its Programing

PBS_logoRight-wing pressure played a major role in prompting PBS to review its programing policies. The heat came from extremist groups such as AIM and from the Reaganite-dominated Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which had threatened its own investigation of PBS program content.

In support of independence for public television, FAIR executive director Jeff Cohen addressed the review committee on imbalance in public affairs panel shows carried by PBS stations as follows:

  • Partisan rightists are well-represented. William Buckley has long hosted the PBS program Firing Line. And while it is not distributed by PBS, the McLaughlin Group, hosted by one of Buckley’s colleagues at National Review, airs on two-thirds of PBS stations. American Interests is another right-tilting show. Why is there no regular PBS show hosted by a progressive or partisan of the left?
  • Business viewpoints are well-represented. (See article, page 9.) Would it not serve the public good to provide a public affairs show that reflected the concerns of those constituencies that sometimes conflict with big business—namely, the consumer, environmental and labor movements? We believe a “public interest program” would attract ratings and underwriting.
  • PBS public affairs/panel shows are populated almost exclusively by white males. Tony Brown’s Journal is an exception. Shouldn’t minorities and women be better represented as hosts and panelists?

The FAIR statement also questioned certain PBS decisions in the documentary area, such as the airing of programs produced by AIM and CAUSA (a front for the Moonie cult), while refusing to broadcast the anti-apartheid documentary The Making of Sun City.

Cohen concluded:

We shudder at the prospect of programing totally dominated by corporate networks whose manic pursuit of ratings often overshadows any concern for the public good. We hope you will not compromise your principles and independence in the face of attacks from right-wing ideologues who would just a soon see public television muzzled or eliminated.

On April 15, PBS issued its report, offering few significant changes in programing policy. However, one new standard, “Courage and Controversy,” commits PBS to include programs in its schedule that “present viewpoints from outside society’s existing consensus or that challenge conventional ideas.” The new policy asserts, “The surest road to intellectual stagnation and social isolation is to stifle the expression of uncommon ideas; today’s dissent may be tomorrow’s orthodoxy.”

This is indeed laudable language. As long as PBS management does not confine its notion of “dissenting” programing to the well-funded extremism of the corporate right, the “Courage & Controversy” standard could make PBS an even better alternative to the three networks.