Oct
28
2010

Don't Defund Public Broadcasting--Improve It

The smart way to fight back against right-wing attacks on NPR and PBS

Here we go again.

Conservative activists and Republican politicians are calling--one more time--to defund public broadcasting. The supposed offense this time around is NPR's decision to fire analyst Juan Williams over comments he made on Fox News Channel about his fear of people in "Muslim garb." The episode is proof, in the eyes of right-wing politicians, that public broadcasting is run by left-wing ideologues who use tax-supported media outlets to spread their liberal message.

The charge is nonsense--and always has been. FAIR's research of NPR and PBS programming over the past 20 years has consistently shown a tilt towards elite guests and sources--government officials, corporate representatives and journalists from the commercial media. FAIR's new study of public television (Extra!, 11/10) finds the same: a system that, by and large, fails to offer the "public" much of a hearing at all.

That narrow range of voices is bad when it's on commercial television, but it's even worse when you consider that public television's founding document calls for a system that would give voice to those "who would otherwise go unheard" and help us to "see America whole, in all its diversity."

The threats from the right to zero out public broadcasting are decades old, and there's no reason to think they will work this time around. But what they can do is remind those in power at PBS and NPR that the right expects them to act. And that part of their strategy has always been remarkably effective, particularly on public television. Conservative pundits have been granted airtime over the years--often as hosts of their own shows--in order to placate right-wing critics. That's how the Wall Street Journal editorial page got its own show on public television a few years back, along with a program for conservative pundit Tucker Carlson (FAIR Action Alert, 9/17/04).

Public broadcasting should be pushed, of course--to live up to the high-minded ideals that established these systems in the first place, not to please conservative politicians or to serve up programming that corporate underwriters want to bring to the airwaves. Last week, many public television stations were airing Food Sense, a documentary about the nation's food supply that, according to its producers's website, was underwritten by agribusiness giant Monsanto. The site describes the show: "ABC News Now contributor and Today show food trends editor Phil Lempert and a group of industry experts illuminate a one-hour public television special that asks and answers the important questions surrounding the nation's food supply." This is "public" television?

If the pressure from the right is to be effectively countered, it's not nearly enough to say, "Don't Defund NPR." What is needed is a call for public broadcasting to fulfill its mission, bringing independent, provocative programming that features voices ignored or marginalized by the commercial media.

If you want to join that call, add your name to FAIR's petition urging PBS to bring back the program Now, which exemplified the kind of journalism that should be available throughout public broadcasting. Sign the petition today.