Commentary Magazine

Public Television

To the Editor:

The article on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) by David Horowitz, “The Politics of Public Television” [December 1991], is dismaying. I am alarmed that COMMENTARY would publish anything so blindly doctrinaire and propagandistic.

Mr. Horowitz berates PBS’s “centralized control” of public television. What he does not say is that the big donors want PBS as a clearing house so they do not have to assess the capabilities of every East Overshoe station in making scattered grants. He does not say that PBS is a “fruit basket”: the individual stations review PBS offerings annually and “vote” by bidding on programs they want. Local managers are as ratings-conscious as the commercial stations (unfortunately) and except for a mistaken obligation to run some fringe offbeat items, they determine what PBS will produce. It is not the best system, but the locals rely on WNET (in New York) and WGBH (in Boston) who have the staff and facilities for major efforts. WPTV here in Miami, as an example of Mr. Horowitz’s oversight, produces a national business report daily and several Spanish public TV programs for the network. . . .

Mr. Horowitz is wrong about the Ford Foundation’s involvement in Washington TV news for public TV. It is true that Nixon saw Sander Vanocur, who was on the Ford Foundation’s Washington news staff, as an enemy and started, or somebody did, a vendetta to get rid of him. I was serving at that time on the board of the National Public Affairs Center for TV (NPACT) which had been set up, largely at Ford’s insistence, to provide a sort of super-selection committee for programming. Also on the board and chairman at the time of WETA-TV (Washington’s local public-TV station) was Max Kampelman, . . . who was later Reagan’s chief representative to the disarmament talks. Fred Friendly was the Ford liaison with NPACT. The White House and others raised hell because Vanocur was getting $80,000 a year—a big salary then, but nowhere comparable to that of the commercial-network anchors. Maybe this was a cover for concern about his philosophy, but that did not occur to me at the time, or to him. . . .

After about a year of service on my part, . . . Friendly started pressuring NPACT to move its major news service from Washington’s WETA to New York’s WNET. Apparently, Friendly was bowing to administration (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) pressure to get news out from under the Washington “liberals,” although they never seemed very liberal to me: they were professional news folks as far as I could see and their efforts at impartial coverage are probably what ticked off Nixon and his buddies, . . . who were the ones who wanted public TV to sell undiluted anti-Communism. As with Bush, Nixon covered his domestic problems with anti-Soviet yak and foreign-relations work.

Anyway, NPACT caved in: its board became the board of WETA, a meaningless assignment. That is when I quit. . . . The major news job went to WNET which never after that did anything but MacNeil/Lehrer. NPACT shortly thereafter folded because CPB said it had nothing to do, which was right. So the “liberals” were dispatched from public TV, which means I don’t know what Mr. Horowitz is talking about. . . .

Mr. Horowitz goes from Philip Agee, whose influence as an “adviser” on one program is not clearly shown, to charging that opposing terrorism and our involvement with Iran-contra is somehow pro-Red. “A one-sided view of the Iran-contra affair as an unconstitutional plot,” is how Mr. Horowitz describes it. Well, it was unconstitutional, the CIA exceeded its authority, and screwed up. . . .

In retrospect, also, I find it hard to blame anyone for opposing our own policies in Central America when we stood firmly behind a bunch of dictators who were oppressing their people and making fortunes for themselves off U.S. aid money. Who was not happy to see Somoza fall, for instance? Even Republicans half-hoped Castro would turn out all right because Batista was such a bastard. . . .

I don’t know of any “liberal-Left” conspiracy or even network; I just think the so-called conservatives are not very creative. If they had any sense they would have a better platform than mere excoriation of these unidentified liberals. Who are they? What issues identify them as liberal? Mr. Horowitz’s contemporary “liberals” happen to be largely Democrats. Congress obviously doesn’t think they are subversive. I don’t think so, either, but I wish they could be better journalists and editors. . . .

Mr. Horowitz’s very language is propagandistic in tone and construction and his sweeping generalities such as “if left-wing politics is PBS’s ill-conceived solution to . . . its financial unease, etc.” are ridiculous. Nobody with any sense, even if so-called left-wing, would think for a New York minute that “radical” politics would solve a financial crisis. . . .

Sylvan Meyer
Miami Beach, Florida



To the Editor:

. . . David Horowitz “has it in” for PBS which, according to him, can do nothing right; moreover, because it receives public funding, it is ipso facto worthless. It may surprise Mr. Horowitz to hear that the publicly-funded Canadian national radio and television network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, surpasses the comparable commercial enterprises in every aspect. . . .

What Mr. Horowitz neglects to tell your readers is that PBS covers a wide variety of good programs, not just the few which he has singled out for criticism. . . .

Living in Toronto, we receive WNED television out of Buffalo, on Channel 17, a PBS station. I cannot remember the names of all the excellent programs to which we have been treated by that station, but some do come to mind: the story of the creation and development of the H-bomb; the wonderful array of British comedies and satires; . . . the nature programs; the Rumpole series (British); Mystery Theater (British); discussions of political affairs by the McLaughlin Group and Inside Washington; opera, symphony, etc. . . .

If PBS sees fit to program left-wing stories, that is its prerogative. Personally, I do not relish or care for such programs. As for the attack on Bill Moyers, that is not justified at all, since he is one of the brightest and most intelligent interviewers on television. . . .

When we consider the junk, drivel, and pap dished up by the major television networks in the U.S., we should be grateful that PBS does not stoop to such low levels, whatever the politics which it is pushing. . . .

[Judge] H. W. Silverman
Ontario Court of Justice
Toronto, Ontario, Canada



To the Editor:

David Horowitz’s article is a refreshing discussion of the Public Broadcasting System’s unrelenting advocacy of left-wing politics. However, nowhere in Mr. Horowitz’s article does he discuss PBS’s coverage of environmental issues. . . .

Take as an example public television’s coverage of global warming. Last year PBS chose to air After the Warming, a 106-minute “documentary” of environmental history to the year 2050, at which point global environmental catastrophe is finally averted through the imposition of a planetwide government that controls every aspect of human life. This fantastic scenario is complete with massive planetary destruction from hurricanes and floods to famines and droughts, and even includes a “series of nuclear accidents” in the year 2008. . . . But nowhere is there any discussion by scientists of the probability of such a scenario.

While PBS distributed After the Warming to all of its member stations, and Maryland Public Television (MPT), the show’s producer, is sending it to thousands of elementary schools nationwide, PBS rejected another program that discusses global warming, the award-winning British documentary, The Greenhouse Conspiracy. Unlike After the Warming, this documentary includes extensive interviews with scientific experts representing all sides of the global-warming debate, before reaching its conclusion that there is no impending catastrophe. While London’s Financial Times declared The Greenhouse Conspiracy to be “quite possibly the best of the year,” PBS found it “too one-sided.”

In response to criticism of PBS’s lack of balance in coverage of global warming, MPT added a seven-minute debate between two experts on the possibility of a greenhouse effect and its potential implications. Additionally, a half-hour debate segment was offered to PBS stations when After the Warming was redistributed in 1991. Unfortunately, 37 minutes of debate hardly equal almost two hours of pure propaganda. . . .

Until some reason and ideological balance are returned to the realm of public television, I am thankful that there are people like David Horowitz who will do their best to keep PBS in line through careful documentation of its abuses.

Jonathan H. Adler
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

David Horowitz’s analysis of PBS is as disturbing as it is insightful. Your readers will want to know that The Africans is not the only case of a PBS propaganda piece to reach into America’s classrooms. In May 1988, WETA distributed to some 40,000 schools across the country free copies of a curriculum guide on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, made to accompany PBS’s film based on David Shipler’s book by that same name. The booklet is an artful piece of anti-Israel propaganda. In it, students can learn that before the advent of Zionism, Arabs and Jews lived in relative harmony; that Arabs and Jews are equally guilty of terrorism; and that the PLO has accepted a two-state solution and renounced terrorism. The most pernicious lesson imparted by this publicly-funded school book, however, is that the Israelis are racists.

According to Shipler, “mutual stereotypes” are the true barriers to peace. The PBS guide employs this seemingly balanced innocuous oversimplification to explain the Arabs and defame the Jews. In the guide’s “psychological approach,” Arab resentment of Jews is explained as stemming from “the political-military conflict,” Jewish domination of the Arab population, and the class structure in Israel in which Arabs do the menial work. . . .

On the other hand, Jewish feeling about Arabs, according to Shipler, is simply racist:

In Jewish eyes, the Arab is dirty, lazy, thieving, incompetent, and . . . uppity. . . . He appears almost as another species, marching to the beat of some primordial drum. . . . He is backward, uncivilized, and a man of animal vengeance and crude desires, of violent creed and wily action. Much of the discourse in Israel . . . contains an assumption that Arabs are unpleasant to the senses, impure as elements in the Jewish state.

Employing the classical terms of American racism, the guide casts the Israelis in the position of American whites and Palestinians in the role of American blacks. If any student misses this key point, Question 12 hammers it home: “What are some of the patterns of prejudice and discrimination between Jews and Arabs that exist between groups in other countries, including blacks and whites in the United States?” . . .

PBS seems to be teaching black children that in the very same way that the Klan hates them, Jews hate Arabs. . . . If anti-Semitism is a light sleeper, then PBS has placed alarm clocks in 40,000 American schools. . . .

Charles Jacobs
Newton, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

David Horowitz’s account of the distorting effect of doctrinaire ideology on PBS is consistent with the concerns of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) regarding PBS coverage of Israel and the Arab world. In particular, PBS documentaries have suffered from an anti-Israel slant. . . .

But in considering the uses made of taxpayer funds disbursed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), it is worth noting that in the area of Middle East coverage, National Public Radio (NPR) is the network which strays most flamboyantly from its congressionally-defined mandate of “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”

While the weekly listening audience of thirteen million may seem scant compared to the vast numbers tuning in to commercial television, the listeners are an influential group. NPR describes them as upscale, America’s decision-makers, the people who write to Congress and to corporations, and who run their communities. . . . Financially, the network relies on CPB money received via local affiliates and on support from private institutions. . . .

Unfortunately, NPR’s array of guests, its news commentary, even its “artistic” segments, are strikingly skewed in their treatment of Israel. . . .

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of NPR’s misrepresentation of Middle East reality is its exclusion of Israel’s mainstream voice. Israel’s Left and ultra-Left are most heavily represented and, as ostensible balance, the far Right is sometimes heard from. The moderate, centrist majority, however, is effectively censored. Examples of the practice abound. On July 21,1991, NPR interviewed Ari Shavit, a far-Left Israeli journalist who compared Israeli military detention prisons to Nazi concentration camps. His extreme and false commentary was unrebutted. (It should be noted that on that same day NPR also ran a second, “arts” segment, in which Israelis were compared to Nazis.)

Again, on September 6, 1991, the network carried another of its numerous segments on conditions in Israeli military prisons. Three Israelis bitterly censured their government, but no response whatever was included from government officials or other experts. Not a word was spoken reminding listeners of the victims, both Arab and Jewish, of the imprisoned. The inescapable message is that Israel needlessly, wantonly, and unfairly rounds up and confines innocent people. . . .

During the Gulf War, hours of special programming were added to cover the crisis, but, again, many of NPR’s stable of experts were known adversaries of Israel who invariably steered the discussion away from Iraq and Kuwait to attacks on Israel. . . . One commentator, Eqbal Ahmad, even blamed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on the Camp David accords!

Perhaps the most significant consequence of NPR’s exclusion of centrist Israeli opinion is that Israel’s security concerns, the main issue for the vast majority of Israelis in their confrontation with the Arabs, are given virtually no airing and allowed no legitimacy on the network. . . .

What are citizens to do when their tax dollars are used to fuel the spread of distorted information? As David Horowitz has noted, no system of accountability exists. Asked in writing to provide CAMERA with a list of speakers appearing on NPR’s three major news programs over the last two years, NPR president Douglas Bennet has simply not responded, and no legal statute requires that he comply with such a public request. . . . NPR’s posture has been not to examine the substance of the complaints or to meet with representatives of CAMERA, as the organization has formally requested, but to stonewall the letter-writers and to disparage the concerns expressed. Interestingly, CAMERA’s many encounters with commercial media, including newspapers, magazines, and television, have met with greater openness. . . . Indeed, individuals in public television have also been more responsive to CAMERA’s concerns about Middle East coverage than has National Public Radio.

Andrea Levin
Boston, Massachusetts



David Horowitz writes:

Sylvan Meyer is better at name-calling than he is at argument. That Miami’s WPTV produces Business Report hardly makes public broadcasting a decentralized system. The fact remains that almost all the national PBS shows are produced by seven of the 340-odd public-television stations, because that is the way the Ford Foundation set up the system in the first place. My account of Ford’s role in Washington TV news is not really challenged by Mr. Meyer’s confused remarks, although he does add the interesting information that Washington’s WETA, one of the system’s premier producing stations, was also a creature of the Ford Foundation.

Like most of the bureaucrats who run public television, Mr. Meyer is under the impression that his partisan views (anti-Nixon, anti-Bush, and generally dismissive of the Soviet threat) are “impartial” and “balanced,” while those who disagree with them are biased. A clearer picture of what is wrong with the mentality of public-television executives would be hard to imagine.

Philip Agee was not only the principal adviser to the producers of the three-hour PBS series On Company Business, his book was the basis for the series. Moreover, the producers who came to me for advice in my days as a Berkeley radical fully shared Agee’s anti-American, pro-communist politics.

Like Bill Moyers, Mr. Meyer thinks there is only one politically-correct attitude toward Iran-contra. Readers of COMMENTARY know better. Mr. Meyer defends PBS’s pro-Sandinista, pro-Castro, pro-FMLN documentaries by arguing first that no one (not even the Sandinistas? Castro? the FMLN?) could be blamed for opposing our policies in Central America and, second, that even Republicans hoped Castro might not turn out to be as bad as he did. The problem with the second argument is that the PBS documentaries appeared in the 1980’s, not in the 1960’s. The problem with the first argument should be self-evident.

Finally, Mr. Meyer—again typically for members of the public-broadcasting community—is perverse in his refusal to understand the central issue. He asks who the liberals are who dominate public television and answers: Democrats. Then he says, quite irrelevantly, “Congress obviously doesn’t think they are subversive. I don’t think so, either. . . .” So what? The problem that confronts us has nothing to do with whether public television airs “subversive” programs (now there’s an antique word). The problem is that public television by law is not supposed to be an arm of the Democratic party or to reflect its views (liberal, radical, or whatever) in a one-sided or exclusive manner. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 unequivocally states that programming funded by the American taxpayer should be strictly “balanced,” and thus the total impact of public programming should be nonpartisan. This is a simple and sensible idea, basic to the healthy functioning of a democracy. Why can’t liberals like Sylvan Meyer understand this?

H.W. Silverman has difficulty reading texts also. I never said PBS “can do nothing right.” In fact, I singled out MacNeil/Lehrer as a news program which often does get it right by respecting the principles of fairness and balance. Judge Silverman also strikes the liberal pose: “If PBS sees fit to program left-wing stories, that is its prerogative.” Well of course. And who said it wasn’t? What is not its prerogative is to program left-wing stories in a one-sided manner, which is a violation of PBS’s enabling legislation.

I agree with Jonathan Adler that PBS’s one-sided environmental programming is a disservice to the community, and that my article would have been more complete if I had discussed this. I welcome his letter as well as that of Charles Jacobs as an addendum to what I wrote.

The same goes for Andrea Levin’s letter. National Public Radio is even more egregious than public television in its contempt for the Public Broadcasting Act.

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