Apr 1 1995

Sen. Pressler’s PBS Inquest

Action Alert

The lawmakers who launched the public television system in 1967 were concerned that government-funded TV would become government-controlled TV. To protect against this, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, a non-governmental, non-profit entity set up to disburse federal funds to public broadcasters.

The idea was that CPB would be a “heat-shield,” protecting public TV and radio from the control of elected officials and government bureaucrats. In the language of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, CPB is legally obligated to “assure the maximum freedom of the public telecommunications entities and systems from interference with, or control of, program content or other activities.”

In recent years, the role of CPB has been reversed: Rather than protecting public broadcasters from government pressure, CPB’s job is seen in Congress as the enforcement of official ideological boundaries. Conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill–who pushed through a statutory requirement in 1992 that CPB enforce “balance and objectivity”–now are taking the corporation to task for not doing enough to patrol the political content of public media.

This scolding took the form of a rambling questionnaire sent by Sen. Larry Pressler (R.-S.D.) to CPB, PBS, NPR and other public broadcasting entities. Pressler, who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, led off with a warning that CPB was destined to be “privatized”–“I respectfully advise you and other public broadcasting officials not to give us threats to take Barney and Big Bird off the air,” he admonished–then moved on to a detailed, 168-point inquest into the financial, editorial and political workings of public broadcasting.

Some of the questions seemed designed to find out how much public TV could bring on the auction block:

What is the commercial value of the current public broadcasting system? That is, what is the comparative value of the hardware–satellite transponders, transmitters, studio, etc.–and software–library of programs belonging to system producers, goodwill, etc.?

But much of the questionnaire amounted to a senatorial demand to micromanage any and all programming decisions made by anyone connected with public broadcasting that Republicans disapproved of:

Some conservative producers have complained of PBS executives giving them a hard time for ideological reasons. Please describe the changes PBS required in Michael Pack’s film Campus Culture Wars and give the reason for each change…. Please describe the changes PBS is requiring in the second episode of Reverse Angle and the reasons for each change.

And so on.

The questions continually harped on a handful of programs, reflecting the small number of PBS offerings that stray from the centrist or right-wing line. Seven questions deal with Journey to the Occupied Lands, a documentary targeted by the conservative pro-Israel media group CAMERA, while eight refer to The Liberators, a film about blacks in World War II that was withdrawn by PBS after questions were raised about its accuracy. Pressler asks about the “balance and objectivity” of Frontline and P.O.V., and about the “profanity, nudity and indecency” on American Playhouse.

Some of the more witch-hunty questions were subsequently withdrawn–e.g., “How many NPR staff have previously worked for Pacifica stations?” But the overall thrust of the document is that CPB should work harder to monitor and punish those broadcasters, like the Pacifica stations, that provide an alternative to the viewpoints allowed on commercial stations.

The response to the questionnaire from CPB and PBS was less than heroic. “The implication that PBS‘s fare is somehow fraught on a daily basis with controversy and conflict is simply not consistent with the facts,” PBS president Ervin Duggan complained–a sorry statement from a network that was set up to provide “a forum for controversy and debate.”

CPB, for its part, made gestures toward the First Amendment, but continued its policy of appeasing the right by funding ever more conservative programming: “CPB has also funded a new public affairs series, American Chronicles (working title), to be produced by Lionel Chetwynd, and featuring correspondents Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke, Suzanne Garment, P.J. O’Rourke and Juan Williams.”

By now it should be clear that one more show stacked with conservative re-treads will not placate the right. What Pressler and his fellow Republicans want is exactly what PBS was not supposed to be: a government-controlled TV system, responsive to political pressure from conservative officials.

Write to Sen. Larry Pressler at the Senate Russell Building, Washington, 20510. Please send copies of all letters to Sam Husseini at FAIR.