Published May 9, 2005 in the Chicago Tribune
Public television is embroiled in political controversy--again.
The latest flap erupted when the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hired consultants to parse PBS shows, including "Now with Bill Moyers," for political bias. CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson insisted he just wants programming on the Public Broadcasting System's 350 or so member stations that "satisfies a broad constituency." He insisted that his scrutiny of the Moyers show and others--and his finding money to fund a program featuring the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board--were merely means toward that end.
Earlier this year there was that contretemps over the "Postcards from Buster" episode in which cartoon rabbit Buster Baxter visited a real-life family with lesbian moms. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings objected and asked PBS to consider returning federal grant money if it aired the program. PBS decided not to distribute it to member stations. Conservatives were upset that the episode nearly made it to the air, and liberals were aghast that PBS pulled it.
Liberals are starting to see a pattern they don't like at all--the beginnings of a conservative coup that seeks to impose a right-wing agenda on public television. This after years in which conservatives fumed about what they perceived as a distinct liberal tilt to some PBS programming.
There's a way to end all the conspiracy theories and stop dead the accusations of political meddling. Get the federal government out of the business of funding public television. As long as government money flows into PBS coffers, tensions will continue about what gets televised--and what doesn't--on those public airwaves.
Back in the 1960s when public television was born and first started getting federal dollars, the arrangement made sense. Viewers were stuck with three TV networks and maybe one or two independent TV stations in each market. Without public TV and the boost from the federal government, groundbreaking children's shows like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street" and quality public affairs shows might never have made it to air. Public TV was unique--no commercials. It offered viewers something they couldn't get elsewhere.
Today 85 percent of Americans get their TV via cable or satellite subscription. Public TV must compete for viewers with cable channels including such quality offerings as A&E, National Geographic, Discovery and The History Channel. Money pressures have brought ubiquitous commercial underwriting messages to PBS. Public TV is no longer unique. But it still gets 15 to 20 percent of its budget--$350 million to $400 million a year--from the federal government. (The rest comes from individuals, corporations, states, colleges and foundations.) That means it must put up with government meddling and comply with the mandate to air shows that are fair, balanced--and offend no one. Ask most people to describe public TV today and they won't complain about bias so much as about how boring and unimaginative it often is. The CPB says it will insist that new money for programming be tied to strict standards of objectivity and balance within each new show. Expect more on-the-one-hand-on-the-other tedium. It's time to liberate public television. Give it a financial sendoff from the proceeds of auctioning off the analog airwave spectrum now used by those public TV stations. Then let it reinvent itself for the 21st Century. Copyright
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