Commentary

By - Nov 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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By Peter Hart

For many years, right-wingers have complained to no end about the “liberal bias” of PBS. Nowadays, it appears someone at PBS is listening. A new program called “The Journal Editorial Report,” featuring writers and editors from the archconservative “Wall Street Journal” editorial page, recently debuted on public television stations around the country. The show joins “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered,” hosted by conservative CNN pundit Tucker Carlson, and a planned program featuring conservative commentator Michael Medved; all as part of what many see as politically motivated decisions to bring more right-wing voices to public television.   According to media reports, conservative complaints about the alleged liberal bias of the program “Now with Bill Moyers” contributed to the momentum to “balance” the PBS lineup. In fact, “Now” will soon see its role on public television diminish, as the program is cut from one hour to 30 minutes when Moyers voluntarily leaves the program later this year. His replacement, co-anchor David Brancaccio, expresses no obvious ideology. If Carlson, Medved and the staff of the Wall Street Journal editorial page are all necessary to balance the liberal Moyers, by 2005 who will be at PBS to balance them?

The “underserved” Right?The notion that public broadcasting should find ways to balance itself is odd, and accepts at face value the right-wing critique that PBS is biased to the left. If anything, PBS (and public broadcasting in general) is theoretically designed to balance the voices that dominate the commercial media. As the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act proposed, public broadcasting should have “instructional, educational and cultural purposes” and should address “the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”   Instead, public television has in practice been largely a home for elite viewpoints, dominated by long-running political shows hosted by conservatives (“Firing Line,” “McLaughlin Group,” “One on One”) and by business shows aimed at the investing class (“Nightly Business Report,” “Adam Smith’s Money World,” “Wall $treet Week”). When this lineup wasn’t enough to insulate public TV from right-wing complaints in the mid-1990s, programmers responded by creating more series for conservatives like Peggy Noonan and Ben Wattenberg.  Now PBS seems once again to be trying to placate right-wing critics, in this case by bringing to public broadcasting voices already well-represented in the mainstream media. Tucker Carlson’s take on world affairs, for example, is available at least five days a week on CNN, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, included in every edition of the nation’s second-largest newspaper, is already widely available—and widely read.

Meet the new boss(es).At the center of this controversy is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides significant federal funding for public broadcasting projects. Two Bush appointees to the board last year, Cheryl Halperin and Gay Hart Gaines, are big donors to the Republican Party, and do not hide their political agendas. Conservative television producer Michael Pack was appointed senior vice-president for television programming at the CPB, and after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich complained to PBS President Pat Mitchell that there weren’t enough conservatives on PBS, Mitchell “proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS town-hall program,” an idea that was frustrated by Gingrich’s contract with Fox News Channel.   Mitchell defended the recent programming decisions, telling a meeting of TV reporters: “I suppose that we’re being accused on the one side of being too liberal and on the other of being too conservative probably means we’re getting it mostly right.” Given that PBS is responding to conservative complaints by adding more conservative shows, and is not responding in any substantive way to progressive complaints, one can only conclude that if the network had been “getting it mostly right,” it’ll now just be getting mostly right-wing.

At least Trent Lott is happy now.There is one audience that seems pleased: Republican senators who were among PBS’s most vocal critics. Coincidentally or not, as these discussions about programming and political bias were heating up, the Senate Commerce Committee was discussing the re-authorization of the CPB’s funding. The committee convened to discuss the matter in late July; though the subject of liberal bias came up, even Republican Senator and longtime PBS critic Trent Lott “noted progress” on that front.  CPB was initially intended to be a “heat shield” for public broadcasting, protecting programmers from political pressures from partisan lawmakers who control the purse strings. It’s long since become a mechanism for transmitting Congress’ ideological desires to public broadcasting, and the new shows announced for public TV prove that it’s become very effective in that role. VS

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