PBS on the Ropes

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were founded in 1967 with the passage of The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Since then, PBS has provided a valuable public service, broadcasting news and public affairs programming that remains nearly absent from the rest of the broadcast spectrum. This is amazing considering that today most Americans have access to hundreds of channels via cable and satellite providers.

Now I don’t claim to know exactly when PBS became the target of the right wings efforts to ferret out liberal bias in the media but it is obvious that it has effectively assumed that mantle as of today. Nearly a decade ago the house, led by Newt Gingrich, attempted to completely cut funding for PBS. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful but it did succeed in forcing PBS to take more corporate funding in the form of commercials from corporations. The idea was that the more corporate money PBS was forced to take the less likely it would be that they would do programming critical of corporations. This effort has taken on new momentum as of late with the House last week proposing to:

“eliminate within two years all federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which passes federal funds to public broadcasters — starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB’s budget for next year, from $400 million to $300 million.”

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the House ended up voting 284-140 against the proposed budget cuts, but the shot across the bow came a little too close for comfort. The current head of the CPB, a man by the name of Ken Tomlinson, has made it perfectly clear that he feel PBS is “too liberal” and as such has begun to try and use his power to effectively neuter the organization. The program that drew the wrath of Tomlinson was NOW, which until recently was hosted by Bill Moyers.

Like him or not, Moyers and his program, now cut from one hour to one half hour and hosted by David Brancaccio, represents one the last true investigative journalism programs on the air. The other in my opinion is also a PBS original, Frontline. Both of these programs provide a critical public service, digging up the dirt on corporate and government wrongdoing, left and right equally. Most recently, NOW dedicated their entire half hour (really a paltry 22 minutes) to the recent Kelo v. New London SCOTUS ruling and guess what? they were highly critical of the liberal majority ruling. You see, the purpose of programs like NOW and Frontline are not, as some would have you believe, to further a liberal agenda. They are to serve the public interest of the citizens of this country.

I am not saying that Bill Moyers is not a liberal, he most certainly is, but the reality is that he is a journalist first, and a damned good one I might add. But don’t listen to me, I am also a liberal, look at the numbers. In a recent Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS Americans spoke loud and clear:

  • PBS is again #1 in public trust, with 49% trusting PBS a great deal. This is a drop of only 1% from last year. Second in trust are “courts of law,” which are trusted a great deal by 26%, which is also a decrease from last year (28%).
  • PBS again ranks second in tax value among 20 federally funded services and institutions, with 23% stating it an excellent value for their tax dollars. Military defense is again #1 in excellent value, but its percentage dropped from 34% last year to 25% this year. PBS, conversely, gained, from 20% to 23%. Moreover, when the “excellent” and “good” scores are combined, PBS tops the list at 76%, tying with police/law enforcement and edging out military defense (74%). Last year PBS was third in this measure, behind military defense (84%) and police/law enforcement (75%).
  • Once again, Americans have stated that they are more satisfied with programs on PBS compared to cable and commercial broadcast. Thirty-eight percent stated they were “very satisfied” with PBS programs, up from 34% last year. Cable dropped in this measure, with 21% answering very satisfied this year, compared to 21% last year. Commercial broadcast was unchanged, with 16% stating they were very satisfied with its programs both years.
  • The majority of Americans think it’s very important to have public television. The response to this question was up this year, from 59% to 62%. Two out of five Americans think the same about commercial broadcast television (42% very important in 2005, up from 40% in 2004). Just over a third thinks it’s very important that we have cable television (35% in 2005 and 36% in 2004).
  • PBS remains the network with the most trusted news and public affairs programs, with 41% trusting its programs a great deal. Only PBS and NPR gained in this measure, both by 1 percentage point (40% to 41% for PBS, 23% to 24% for NPR). All of the other news networks were down, and three were down significantly: CNN (33% to 28%), MSNBC (21% to 17%) and CBS (20% to 16%).

In a speech in front of the National Conference on Media Reform Bill Moyers I think said it best when, talking about the founding of the NOW program in the wake of the 9/11 attacks he said,

This, too, was on my mind when we assembled the team for NOW. It was just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We agreed on two priorities. First, we wanted to do our part to keep the conversation of democracy going. That meant talking to a wide range of people across the spectrum – left, right and center.

It meant poets, philosophers, politicians, scientists, sages and scribblers. It meant Isabel AlIende, the novelist, and Amity Shlaes, the columnist for the Financial Times. It meant the former nun and best-selling author Karen Armstrong, and it meant the right-wing evangelical columnist Cal Thomas. It meant Arundhati Roy from India, Doris Lessing from London, David Suzuki from Canada, and Bernard Henry-Levi from Paris. It also meant two successive editors of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley and Paul Gigot, the editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, The Nation‘?s Katrina vanden Heuvel and the L.A. Weekly’s John Powers.

It means liberals like Frank Wu, Ossie Davis and Gregory Nava, and conservatives like Frank Gaffney, Grover Norquist, and Richard Viguerie. It meant Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Bishops conference in this country. It meant the conservative Christian activist and lobbyist, Ralph Reed, and the dissident Catholic Sister Joan Chittister. We threw the conversation of democracy open to all comers.

That is right, the conversation of democracy, at least on PBS, has been held open to ALL voices. Regardless of your political leanings you must recognize that the destruction of PBS, while it might make some on the right feel good, will utlimately take a massive chunk our of what is already a battered and beleaguered body of public discourse.

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