PBS Self-Destructs

Eugenia Williamson, PBS Self-Destructs. Harper’s, October 2014. (Subscription only, but non-subscribers can read one article per month as guests.) “Last October, I watched as a passel of activists convened in front of WGBH, Boston’s public-television station. There were about three dozen of them on the concrete forecourt…. WGBH employees, as well as cameramen and reporters on hand to cover the protest, weaved through the crowd. The grassroots climate-change group Forecast the Facts had organized the rally as an attempt to expel David Koch from the station’s board of trustees. The members had collected and printed out 120,000 digital signatures and placed them in boxes, which they planned to present at that afternoon’s board meeting. ”

[WGBH] Board chairman Amos Hostetter thanked [the activists], then delivered some prepared remarks enumerating all the reasons why David Koch would remain on the board regardless of his political affiliations….

Why would a man like David Koch, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in weakening the federal government, expend a nickel on behalf of PBS — an entity viewed by many in his party as synonymous with liberal propaganda and government waste? And why would a publicly funded institution let him in the door, let alone risk its reputation to defend him from his critics?

The answer: conservatives have refined their tactics. In recent years, they have recognized that on pragmatic grounds, PBS just isn’t worth the fight, since it accounts for such a microscopic percentage of federal expenditures. But they have also become cannier about the uphill PR battle they face when denouncing public television. As the Democratic Massachusetts senator Ed Markey once noted: “The problem is that once the debate on PBS begins, then Big Bird shows up and says, ‘Why are you trying to kill me?’ ”…

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter that the Republicans couldn’t defund PBS — they didn’t really need to. Twenty years on, the liberal bias they bemoaned has evaporated, if it ever existed to begin with. Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. This should surprise nobody who has taken a long, hard look at PBS’s institutional history….

For one brief, shining moment — which occurred before its actual creation — PBS was an uncompromised thing. It began [in 1969]  as a Great Society initiative under the Johnson Administration and, like other public-works programs of the era, was conceived as a way to level the effects of poverty and close the education gap. Television, which was then rapidly expanding thanks to new developments in microwave radio-relay technology, seemed like the most effective way to reach the greatest number of people. A coast-to-coast educational network could provide all American children with access to a common curriculum, while programs of cultural and political worth — which commercial networks couldn’t or wouldn’t risk bad ratings to air — could help their parents become better-informed citizens….

The Public Broadcasting System was invented to wrest power from NET [National Educational Television network], which Nixon — as well as a fair number of rural public-television employees — saw as a citadel of Eastern liberal oppression…. [T]he deal gave local stations far greater leverage over their own programming, effectively ending the dream of a truly national public-television network….

Nixon’s most significant acts of vandalism [against public television] were financial….

…[P]ublic television would be forever spooked by the thought of losing all its federal funds. “The ultimate threat of pulling the plug altogether, which Nixon came really, really close to doing, is enough to have a political ripple effect,” [James] Ledbetter [author of Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States] told me. “You just need to threaten to do it, and then the system learns to stay away from any content that might get you into that situation, and you’re fine. That’s why you have a lot of weasels and snakes and kids’ programming.”

By the time Reagan was elected [1980], infighting and money woes had become the status quo at PBS. Unlike Nixon, the new president did not regard PBS as a liberal pestilence to be eradicated at all costs. As [former WNET president James] Day writes, “Reagan, unlike Nixon, felt no compelling urge to silence the voice of public broadcasting or to take it over and make it his own. He saw it not as a threat — it was too irrelevant for that — but only as another debit to be removed from the government dole.”

From the late 1980s onward, however, right-wing culture warriors kept up the assault. Their targets weren’t the public-affairs programs PBS stations produced in-house, which were institutional in tone if not outright exclusionary to dissident voices. (When the cameras weren’t rolling, Lehrer referred to anti-nuclear activists as “whiners.”) Then as now, PBS controversy swirled around documentary programming brought to the network by independent producers….

[Documentary filmmaker B.J. Bullert] put together Public Television: Politics and the Battle over Documentary Film (1997), a collection of case studies on culture war–era non-fiction films that PBS had stifled or censored outright. Days of Rage (1989), for example, was sympathetic toward the Palestinian Intifada — so the network felt obliged to package it with disclaimers, panel discussions, and, in the case of WNET, two mini-documentaries told from the Israeli perspective that cost $150,000. Stop the Church (1991), which criticized the Catholic hierarchy for its corrosive teachings on sexuality in the age of AIDS, was canceled outright.

Interviewing angry filmmakers and frustrated public-television employees, Bullert discovered that this culture of suppression had become embedded at PBS….

What remains today of public broadcasting is thoroughly enervated, with hardly a vestige of liberalism, purported or otherwise. Moyers, its one consistently progressive voice, has been flirting with retirement since 2004 and is now [2014] on his way out the door….

Though they may upset some progressives with their deference to powerful underwriters intent on jazzing up the tatty old public-education system, Charlie Rose and the NewsHour gang fulfill an essential function for PBS: namely, they allow retirement-age viewers the opportunity to see themselves reflected on the screen. While other networks court the coveted eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic, PBS caters to seniors seeking the news of the day presented in a way that doesn’t raise their blood pressure….

“Night after night,” Moyers told me, “the realities of life for the vast majority of Americans rarely show up on public television — neither in its public-affairs programming nor its prime-time fare. There has been one documentary all year on the flailing middle class and the forgotten poor…. And PBS has commissioned a series for next year, using U.S. taxpayer funds, on the ‘great homes’ of Great Britain. Not on homelessness in America.