Feb
18
2011

How to Save Ourselves From the 'Save PBS' Routine

It is as predictable as can be: Invigorated Republican politicians announce their intention to kill public broadcasting, which they claim is a bastion of liberal bias. Defenders of NPR and PBS step in to defend the system. The Republicans, who were unlikely to win a vote on their plan, retreat for the moment. Public broadcasting is "saved." (See Slate, 2/10/11.)

The public broadcasting fight of 2011 is playing out the same way. A more productive discussion of public broadcasting is sorely needed--one that is not reduced to "save it" or "kill it."

The purpose of public broadcasting is clear: to promote ideas and perspectives that are ignored or underrepresented in the commercial media. As the 1967 Carnegie Commission put it, it should "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity." How well public broadcasting is living up to those ideals should be the principal test for gauging its value.

Most of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funding under question goes to local stations, but much of the discussion on both sides revolves around familiar national programming. Some shows represent a good faith effort to live up to the vision laid out by the Carnegie Commission. But as FAIR's decades of research has shown, others--like the PBS NewsHour--do not, relying on sources and perspectives that mimic the corporate-owned media (Extra!, 11/10). If anything, the attacks from the right serve to make room for additional conservative voices on PBS. As FAIR pointed out (Extra!, 9-10/05), "A rival to Fox News Channel could be launched with the list of conservatives who have hosted or produced shows on public television over the years."

So what would be a better way? The CPB was intended to insulate public broadcasters from political pressure, acting as a "heat shield." The fact that this tired routine is upon us once again is proof that it does not serve that function. To the contrary, the CPB has long been used as a political tool to encourage certain kinds of programming and discourage others. (Funneling grants to local stations was considered a good way to develop more conservative programming in the Nixon administration.) During the Bush years, the CPB encouraged right-wing PBS shows to counter alleged liberal bias--giving us Tucker Carlson and the Wall Street Journal's hard right editorial page on public television, supported by public money (FAIR Action Alert, 9/17/04).

Publicly funded media is something worth fighting for at a local and national level. But the politics of the current fight are clear: The right calls for budget cuts because it says NPR and PBS are too left-wing. Liberal defenders weigh in to defend the CPB budget, making few or no demands on public broadcasters. This all but guarantees that public broadcasting will continue to be pushed to the right, and further away from its intended mission. As FAIR described the dynamic (Extra!, 9-10/05):

With each successive attack from the right, public broadcasting becomes weakened, as programmers become more skittish and public TV's habit of survival through capitulation becomes more ingrained.

Even if full CPB funding were restored and political cronies like Ken Tomlinson removed from their posts, the same potential for using the CPB appropriation process as a tool to force public broadcasting further to the right would still exist. If recent history is any guide, it would only be a matter of time until PBS would need to be saved once again—most likely at the cost of yet more concessions to the right.

What's needed is a truly independent funding mechanism--as FAIR and others have called for over the years (6/8/06). A 1.5 percent dedicated tax on TV advertising, for example, would provide $1 billion a year for a public broadcasting system that would be truly free from both commercial pressures and political interference. Such a system would have a good chance of living up to the Carnegie Commission's ideals.

Certainly, public broadcasting supporters should demand a whole lot more than the status quo. If the energy behind the campaigns to "save" the CPB were dedicated to building support for an independent public trust, we could build the kind of public media system the country deserves.