The Politics of Public Television
Created by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the present system of public television is by now one of the last El Dorados of the Great Society. From relatively modest beginnings it has grown into a $1.2-billion leviathan which is virtually free of accountability to the taxpayers who shell out an annual $250 million to pay for the system while also enabling it to get matching grants from private individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Of these private benefactors, the most important historically was the Ford Foundation, especially under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Having helped orchestrate the Vietnam crusade for both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Bundy became one of a large crowd of liberals to leave the sinking ship of the policy they had charted. In 1966 he found refuge in the presidency of the Ford Foundation. Upon taking this new job, Bundy told intimates that he intended to make public television one of the special objects of his attention, and he then went on to do so.
To be sure, he had something to build on. Before his arrival, Ford had already funded many of the hundred or more educational stations around the country, to the tune of $150 million—a prodigious sum for that period—and had done much to establish the rudiments of a fourth national network.
Before Ford entered the picture, educational stations had been distinctly homegrown, do-it-yourself, garden variety in character. Operating on an average of only eight hours a day and mainly associated with universities and schools, they devoted themselves to no-frills instructional fare, tailored to their respective locales. Shakespeare in the Classroom, Today’s Farm, Parents and Dr. Spock, Industry on Parade, were typical titles of the programs that were often “bicycled” from one station to the next, because there was no “interconnection” link at the time. The unifying factor in all these educational productions, and the one that distinguished them most clearly from commercial TV, was their low budgets. It was this factor that Ford’s intervention transformed.
So great was the change that there is no organic relation between the high-tech professionalism of public television as we now know it and the modest efforts of the pioneers in the field. An hour of MacNeil /Lehrer (perhaps the best product of the post-Bundy system) costs $96,000, while a similar segment of a series like Cosmos or Masterpiece Theater might cost three or four times that much. These figures are certainly much lower than those for comparable commercial shows (partly because of special discount arrangements with unions and talent), but they are still out of the reach of any university or community group.
Despite this change from the early days, executives of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) still portray their network as if it were a decentralized service to diverse publics, the very incarnation of America’s democratic spirit. A typical statement reads:
PBS is owned and directed by its member public television stations, which in turn are accountable to their local communities. This grassroots network is comprised of stations operated by colleges, universities, state and municipal authorities, school boards, and community organizations across the nation.
Yet notwithstanding organizational complexities of Rube Goldberg dimensions, and the lack of a single programming authority, the truth is that centralized power dominates public television and creates its characteristic voice. Of the 44 million taxpayer dollars annually available for programs to the 341 separately-owned PBS stations across the nation, fully half the total—$22 million—goes to just two: WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York. (Another $10 million goes to a group of producers affiliated with WNET, to three other stations, and to PBS itself, which brings the centralized total to 77 percent of the funds.) This money is then leveraged against grants from private foundations and other sources by a factor as great as two, three, or even five times the original amount.
The result is that most major public-television series—MacNeil/Lehrer, American Playhouse, Frontline, NOVA, Sesame Street, Great Performances, Masterpiece Theater, and Bill Moyers’s ubiquitous offerings—are produced or “presented” by WNET and WGBH. Others are produced by a group of stations known as the “G-7” (after the tag given to the major industrial powers), often with WNET and WGBH as the dominant partners.1
In creating the new system in the late 60’s, its architects attempted to square the circle of a government-funded institution that would be independent of political influence. The result was a solution in the form of a problem: a private body—the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)—that would distribute the government funds. Compromise was the order of the day. The Carnegie Commission (whose report had led to the 1967 Act) wanted the governing board of CPB to be composed of eminent cultural figures; Lyndon Johnson wanted (and got) political appointees. Carnegie wanted a permanent funding base in the form of an excise tax on television sets; Congress said no. But as a sop to the broadcasters, emphasis was placed on the private nature of CPB as a “heat shield” to insulate the system from governmental influence.
Congress also limited CPB’s mandate, insisting that it be established on the “bedrock of localism.” (The idea of an elite network financed by the taxpayer would have been political anathema.) To prevent CPB from creating a centralized “fourth network,” Congress barred it from producing programs, operating stations, or managing the “interconnection” between them. In addition to insisting on the safeguards of a decentralized system, Congress inserted a clause requiring “fairness, objectivity, and balance” in all programming of a controversial nature.
Such was the plan; the product proved otherwise. With Congress having agreed to provide a fund to finance the stations, Bundy recruited David Davis of WGBH for the task of connecting them into a national voice. Together with Ward Chamberlin of CPB, Davis engineered the new interconnection, which began operations in 1970 as the Public Broadcasting Service.
To meet congressional concerns about preserving localism, the new Public Broadcasting Service was to be controlled by a board of directors elected by the “grassroots” subscribing stations. But Ford ensured that they, in turn, would be dominated by the powerful inner circle of metropolitan stations it favored. The new PBS president was Hartford Gunn, the manager of WGBH.
While this process was working itself out, political events were moving in ways that would fatefully shape its future. Until 1968, the disaffected liberals who had a share in creating public television had been engaged in a family quarrel with their fellow Democrats. The Vietnam war had cast them unexpectedly in an adversarial posture toward the anti-Communist liberals who remained committed to the Vietnam policy they themselves had once supported. But in 1968, the presidency fell into unfriendly Republican hands and, worse still, into the hands of the man who, since the trial of Alger Hiss, had been their most hated political antagonist. Now, with Richard Nixon in the White House, the Vietnam nightmare no longer belonged mainly to the liberals.
It was in this period that Bill Moyers joined WNET to begin his intellectual odyssey to the Left. It was in this period, too, that the Ford Foundation announced the creation of a news center in Washington, which would be staffed by prominent luminaries from the media fraternity, several of whom the Nixon White House had identified as political enemies. Among them were Elizabeth Drew, Robert MacNeil, and Sander Vanocur.
The loading of these cannons was duly noted by the White House, and in June 1972, Nixon retaliated by vetoing the CPB funding bill. CPB’s president and several Johnson-appointed board members resigned, and were immediately replaced with Nixon nominees. For all the good it did him, Nixon might have saved himself the trouble. Two weeks earlier, five men had been arrested while breaking into the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. By the end of the year, the most watched show on public-television stations was the congressional hearing to decide whether to impeach the President. True to its promise to offer fare that the commercial channels would not or could not provide, PBS featured the hearings on prime time when the networks had turned to other entertainments. The result was a groundswell of support from new members and contributors. Even the more conservative stations, which had been at loggerheads with PBS, joined hands with the center to fight the common foe.
Having humbled the President, the Democratic Congress now rushed eagerly to aid its ally in the Watergate travails. A significant increase in funds for public television was authorized and, more importantly, committed three years in advance. Congress also acted to tie CPB’s unreliable hands. Fifty percent of its non-discretionary program grants were now earmarked for the stations as “general support”—a percentage that would rise even higher in the following decade. The stations, in turn, kicked back a portion of their grants into a newly created program fund, further depriving CPB of influence over the system product.
When the dust had settled, CPB, which Nixon had tried to make a conservative redoubt, was discredited and crippled, while the Ford Foundation’s protégé, PBS, emerged as the newly dominant power at the center of the system.
Vietnam and Watergate: public television’s birth by fire in the crucible of these events created its political culture, which today often seems frozen in 60’s amber. The one area of its current-affairs programming which managed to escape this fate, ironically, is the one where the battle with the Nixon White House was most directly joined.
Robert MacNeil, as noted, was among the liberal journalists singled out by the Nixon administration as political antagonists. But the program he launched on WNET in 1975, in collaboration with Jim Lehrer, turned out to be reasonably fair and balanced. Originally devoted to a single subject per evening, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report provided in-depth analysis that network sound-bites could not duplicate, and it went on to prosper more than any other public-television show besides Sesame Street.
But MacNeil/Lehrer—along with a few other “talking heads” shows, most notably Tony Brown’s Journal and William F. Buckley’s Firing Line—proved to be the exception. In other crucial areas of current-affairs programming, a different standard was set. Especially in film documentaries, where subjects were treated in a magazine-like setting that made it possible to tell a story whole and with an editorial thrust, the political personality of the system soon showed another, more radical face.
In fact, the protest culture, which everywhere else had withered at the end of the 60’s when its fantasies of revolution collapsed, discovered a new base of operations in public television. A cottage industry of activist documentarians had sprung up during the 60’s to make promotional films for the Black Panther party, the Weather Underground, and other domestic radical groups, and for Communist countries like Cuba and Vietnam. This group now began its own “long march through the institutions” by taking its political enthusiasms, its film-making skills, and its network of sympathetic left-wing foundations into the PBS orbit.
The integration of these radicals into the liberal PBS community was made easier by the convergence of political agendas at the end of the Vietnam war, when supporters of the Communist conquerors were able to celebrate victory over a common domestic foe with liberals who had only desired an American withdrawal. Another convergence occurred around the post-60’s romance between New Left survivors and the “Old Left” Communists, whom cold warriors like Richard Nixon had made their targets. Most liberals shared the radicals’ antipathy for the anti-Communist Right, along with their sense that any political target of the anti-Communists was by definition an innocent victim of persecution.
A prime expression of this liberal-Left convergence was The Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1974), a two-hour special which attempted to exonerate the most famous “martyrs” of the anti-Communist 50’s, and which PBS described as “the kind of programming that we enjoy presenting [and] hope to continue to present.”
What was striking about the film was not just that it cast doubt on the verdict of the Rosenbergs’ trial; or that it did so even as massive FBI files released under the new Freedom of Information Act were confirming their guilt; or even that it went beyond the airing of questions about the case to imply that there had been a government frame-up and that the verdict represented an indictment of American justice. What was most disturbing (and prophetic in terms of future PBS productions) was that the film also amounted to a political brief for the Communist Left to which the Rosenbergs had belonged.
Thus, the narration introduced the Rosenbergs:
With millions of others they question an economic and political system that lays waste to human lives. Capitalism has failed. A new system might be better. Socialism is its name. For many the vehicle for change is the Communist party.
The film then cut to an authority explaining that Communists were people who “believed that you couldn’t have political democracy without economic democracy. . . . Being a Communist meant simply to fight for the rights of the people. . . .” The authority was the longtime Stalinist Carl Marzani, a fact that the program neglected to mention.
In 1978, to mark the 25th anniversary of the execution of the Rosenbergs, PBS ran the four-year-old documentary again, adding a half-hour update. The update confirmed just how determinedly ideological some regions of PBS had become.
The original two-hour program had been based on the standard argument for the Rosenbergs’ innocence developed in a well-known book by Walter and Miriam Schneir. In the interim, The Rosenberg File by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton had appeared, based on the new FBI materials and on original interviews with principals in the case. While concluding that Julius Rosenberg had been guilty as charged, the authors—one of them a former member of the Rosenberg Defense Committee—were critical of the death penalty and of the prosecution of Ethel Rosenberg, against whom they believed no credible case had been made.
Because The Rosenberg File had been so widely praised as a “definitive” account, PBS executives asked the producer of the documentary, Alvin Goldstein, to interview Radosh as part of the “update.” Said Radosh later:
I couldn’t believe the final product when I saw it. He cut out everything I said that contradicted his film, and left only the parts that supported his claims: the failure of the government to make its case against Ethel, the injustice of the sentence. Whereas our book totally demolished the argument of his film, viewers watching it would think I endorsed his claims. Moscow television couldn’t have done better. It was outrageous.
Far from being an isolated example, the PBS treatment of the Rosenbergs proved typical. Individual Communists who were later admiringly profiled on PBS specials included Paul Robeson, Angela Davis, Dashiell Hammett, Bertolt Brecht, and Anna Louise Strong. These were amplified by the collective portrait Seeing Red (1986), a 90-minute celebration of American Communists as progressive idealists, and The Good Fight (1988), a nostalgic tribute to the Communists who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
In a clear violation of PBS’s enabling legislation, this opening to the discredited pro-Soviet Left was never balanced by any reasonably truthful portrait of American Communism; nor was it matched by any provision of equal time to anti-Communists, whether of the Left or Right. Thus, although there were specials on the personal trials of American radicals who had devoted their lives to a political illusion and enemy power, there was nothing on the tribulations of those former radicals who had changed their minds in order to defend their country and its freedom—Max Eastman, Jay Lovestone, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Bayard Rustin, Sidney Hook.
While PBS searched for silver linings in the dark clouds of the Communist Left, it found mainly negative forces at work in those American institutions charged with fighting the Communist threat, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which became a PBS symbol of American evil. In 1980, PBS aired a three-hour series called On Company Business, which its producers described as “the story of 30 years of CIA subversion, murder, bribery, and torture as told by an insider and documented with newsreel film of actual events.”
The CIA “insider” on whom the PBS film relied for editorial guidance was Philip Agee, who in a 1975 Esquire article had written: “I aspire to be a Communist and a revolutionary.” The same year a Swiss magazine asked Agee’s opinion of U.S. and Soviet intelligence agencies. He replied:
The CIA is plainly on the wrong side, that is the capitalistic side. I approve KGB activities, Communist activities in general, when they are to the advantage of the oppressed. In fact, the KGB is not doing enough in this regard because the USSR depends upon the people to free themselves. Between the overdone activities that the CIA initiates and the more modest activities of the KGB there is absolutely no comparison.
Agee had been expelled from the Netherlands, France, and England because of his contacts with Soviet and Cuban intelligence agents, but the PBS special identified him only by the caption “CIA: 1959-1969.” When Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM) and other critics objected to the program’s “disinformation,” they were dismissed out of hand by Barry Chase, the PBS vice president for News and Public Affairs. Chase even sent a memo to all PBS stations describing On Company Business as “a highly responsible overview of the CIA’s history and a major contribution to the ongoing debate on the CIA’s past, present, and future.”
PBS’s next summary view of American intelligence was a Bill Moyers special called The Secret Government (1987), which insinuated what no congressional investigation had ever established: that the CIA was a rogue institution subverting American policy. The wilder shores of this kind of conspiracy thesis were subsequently explored in two Frontline programs, Murder on the Rio San Juan (1988) and Guns, Drugs, and the CIA (1988), which leaned heavily on the fantasies of the far-Left Christic Institute. The Secret Government was followed by a four-part series called Secret Intelligence (1988), which, like all three of its predecessors, rehearsed the standard litany of left-wing complaints—Iran, Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Chile—and culminated in a one-sided view of the Iran-contra affair as an anti-constitutional plot.
All these programs judged the CIA to be more of a threat to American institutions than a guardian of American security. And while PBS officials continued to pay lip service to the idea of “balance,” no sympathetic portrait of the CIA’s cold-war activities was ever aired, no equally partisan account of its role in supporting the anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan or Angola.
In the absence of countervailing portrayals of American cold-war policies and institutions, the indictments presented in PBS documentaries amounted to an editorial position. In the PBS perspective, the United States emerged as an imperialist, counterrevolutionary power whose national-security apparatus was directed not at containing an expansionist empire but (in the words of the producers of On Company Business) at suppressing “people who have dared struggle for a better life.”
Ironically, this Marxist caricature received a full-dress treatment on PBS channels in 1989, the very year the Communist utopia collapsed in ruins. The American Century was a five-part, five-hour series written and hosted by the editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, which purported to chart the course of American foreign policy from 1900. The final segment traced American cold-war policy from 1945 to 1975. It did not pay tribute to the heroic efforts of containment which would soon result in the liberation of millions upon millions of people from the chains of a tyranny as great as the world has ever known. It rehearsed, instead, the same old left-wing litany—Guatemala, Iran, the Bay of Pigs—to claim that under the cloak of anti-Communism, third-world progress had become the victim of greedy U.S. corporations and their secret allies in the U.S. government (described by Lapham in relation to Cuba as “the agent of the reactionary past”). This summary segment of the series was called Imperial Masquerade, and it appeared in December 1989 even as East Berliners were tearing down their Wall.
The view of America as an evil empire was powerfully reinforced by PBS’s treatment of post-Vietnam Communism in other documentary programs. In 1975, PBS aired China Memoir, a piece about the Maoist paradise by the actress Shirley MacLaine. So wide-eyed was it that PBS’s own chairman was forced to concede that it was “pure propaganda.” China Memoir was followed by The Children of China (1977), which was praised by Communist officials who thought it would help Americans to “understand the new China.” The “new” North Korea and the “new” Cuba were also the focus of promotional features in North Korea (1978), Cuba, Sport and Revolution (1979), Cuba: The New Man (1986), and Cuba—In the Shadow of Doubt (1986), about which the New York Times commented: “At its best, the documentary has a romantic infatuation with Cuba; at its worst, it is calculated propaganda.”
As the locus of the cold war shifted to Central America in the 1980’s, documentary after documentary appeared on PBS celebrating the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua and the FMLN terrorists in El Salvador. These included From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua Today (1982), Target Nicaragua (1983), and El Salvador, Another Vietnam? (1981). The producers of these programs, all presented by WNET, were the radical activist filmmakers who had come in from the 70’s cold (among them: World Focus Films of Berkeley, the Women’s Film Project, and the Institute for Policy Studies).
As with its celebrations of American Communism, PBS showed no eagerness to balance this advocacy with other views. In 1983, the American Catholic Committee offered WNET a program critical of the Marxist regime, Nicaragua: A Model for Latin America? The Catholic film was based on documentary footage and dealt with government repression of the press, the Roman Catholic Church, and independent labor unions. WNET rejected the film, on the ground that it had “a better way to handle this information.”
And indeed in 1985, a Frontline program called Central America in Crisis did take a critical look at the various sides of the conflict, while in 1986, Nicaragua Was Our Home—a film focusing on the plight of the Miskito Indians—was aired in response to the protests over WNET’s previous offerings. But for the most part, the “better way” to handle information about Nicaragua turned out to be pretty much the way it had been handled before.
In 1984, for example, the Frontline series featured Nicaragua: Report From the Front whose message (in the words of the New York Times reviewer John Corry) was: “Sandinistas are good: their opponents are bad. There is no middle ground.” The same wisdom was the message of two subsequent Frontline reports: Who’s Running This War? (1986), which portrayed the contras as Somocistas bent on violating human rights, and The War on Nicaragua, which was named one of “The Worst Shows of the Year” in 1987 by the liberal critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, John Carman, who called it “shoddy, unfair, and manipulative journalism.”
Nor did the PBS approach to Communist movements alter when addressing the conflicts in other Central American countries. Thus Guatemala: When the Mountains Tremble (1985) was panned by the New York Times as a “vanity film” because of its agitprop character, and the Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, summed it up in the following terms:
The film is bluntly didactic and one-sided in portraying Guatemalan rebels as noble freedom fighters and Guatemalan peasants opposed to the present regime as the victims of repression, torture, and squalor.
At least four of the programs on Central America which PBS chose to air during this crucial decade before Communism’s collapse were the work of a single director and radical ideologue, Deborah Shaffer, whose “solidarity” with the Communist dictators of Nicaragua, and their guerrilla allies in El Salvador and Guatemala, was a proudly displayed item in her curriculum vitae. Her most celebrated documentary, Fire From the Mountain (1988), an aggressive promotion of Sandinista myths, was based on the autobiography of the Sandinista secret-police chief, Omar Cabezas, while her other films—El Salvador: Another Vietnam? (1981), Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements (1986), and Nicaragua: Report From the Front (1984)—all reflected her commitment to the politics of the Central American guerrillas.
In 1988, the Congressional Oversight Committees for Public Television, led by their Democratic chairmen, Representative Edward Markey and Senator Daniel Inouye, institutionalized this revolutionary front inside PBS by authorizing the transfer of $24 million of CPB monies to set up the Independent Television Service (ITVS) as a separate fund for “independent” film-makers. Representing the independents in testimony before the committees were Deborah Shaffer’s producer, Pam Yates of Skylight Productions, and Larry Daressa, co-chairman of the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. Daressa, who later turned up on the ITVS board, was also the president of California Newsreel, flagship of the radical film collectives and producer of such 60’s classics as Black Panther and The People’s War, a triumphalist view of the Communist conquest of Vietnam.
Biting the hand that had fed him and his ideological comrades so generously, Daressa attacked PBS for knuckling under to “corporate interests”:
Independent producers have found themselves progressively marginalized in this brave new world of semi-commercial, public pay television. Our diverse voices reflecting the breadth of America’s communities and opinions have no place in public television’s plans to turn itself into an upscale version of the networks. We have found that insofar as we speak with an independent voice we have no place in public television.
But as one veteran member of the public-television community scoffed on hearing this testimony:
These people are not “diverse,” they’re politically correct. Nor are they “independent.” These are the commissars of the political Left. These are the people who basically owned the Vietnamese and Cuban and Nicaraguan franchises, who got so close to Communist officials and guerrilla capos that if you wanted to get access for interviews or permission even to bring camera equipment into the “liberated zone” in certain cases, you had to go through them.
Nevertheless, Congress authorized $24 million in public funds to the artistic commissars of the ITVS, thereby providing the extreme Left with an institutional base in public television.
All during its tenure, the Reagan administration battled Soviet-backed Marxists in Central America and the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua. Yet there was no direct White House response to the PBS attacks on its Central American policies, or even to PBS’s propaganda war in behalf of the Communist enemy. Far from attempting to control public television through CPB, as the Nixon administration had (unsuccessfully) done, the Reagan White House even reappointed Sharon Rockefeller, a Carter nominee and liberal Democrat, as CPB chairman. Penn James, who handled White House appointments, recalls:
Our intention had been to remove her as chairman, just as we tried to do with every other agency. But when we announced our intention, her father, Senator Charles Percy, was outraged. He went storming over to the White House and told the President: “If you want my cooperation on the Foreign Relations committee, you’d better reappoint my daughter.” So we did.
But with Reagan’s reelection and her father’s defeat, Rockefeller was replaced as chairman by Sonia Landau. The following spring, a Reagan appointee, Richard Brookhiser, offered a modest proposal to the CPB board. Brookhiser suggested that CPB undertake a scientific “content analysis” of the current-affairs programs it had funded to see if they were indeed tipped to one side of the political scale. The board would be “derelict,” he said, if it did not try to assure the “objectivity and balance” of its programming as the 1967 Act had mandated.
It seemed a straightforward request, but the reaction was almost entirely negative. Charges of “neo-McCarthyism” were hurled in Brookhiser’s direction, and PBS vice president Barry Chase scolded:
It is inappropriate for a presidentially appointed group to be conducting a content analysis of programming. It indicates that some people on the CPB board don’t fully understand the appropriate constraints on them.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, was less restrained:
In 1973, President Nixon in fact tried to kill federal funding for public television through his political appointees to the board, and the kind of chicanery that went on at the time. They didn’t do a “content analysis.” Content analysis seems to me a little more sophisticated way of achieving those ends.
Such accusations were sufficiently intimidating to stall the proposal. Brookhiser could not secure enough support even from the Reagan-appointed majority to get approval. Meeting in June, the CPB board decided to postpone its decision on the study until September. But before it could do so, a new controversy erupted, which demonstrated just how weak the conservatives’ influence on public television was, and how powerful their liberal adversaries had become.
The casus belli was a nine-part series on Africa presented by WETA. The Africans had been underwritten by more than $1 million in grants from PBS, CPB, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). When Lynne Cheney, the chairman of NEH, received an additional request from WETA for $50,000 to promote the series, she decided to screen it. Her response was outrage:
I have just finished viewing all nine hours of The Africans. Worse than unbalanced, this film frequently degenerates into anti-Western diatribe. . . . [One entire segment, Tools of Exploitation] strives to blame every technological, moral, and economic failure of Africa on the West. . . . The film moves from distressing moment to distressing moment, climaxing in Part IX where Qaddafi’s virtues are set forth. Shortly thereafter, pictures of mushroom clouds fill the screen and it is suggested that Africans are about to come into their own, because after the “final racial conflict” in South Africa, black Africans will have nuclear weapons.
Cheney told WETA that not only would she not finance the promotion of the series, but she wanted the NEH credits removed from the print. “Our logo is regarded as a mark of approbation, and NEH most decidedly does not approve of this film.”
Cheney’s position was in striking contrast to PBS’s defense of the series, which was to disclaim all responsibility for the product that bore its imprint. Said Christensen:
We don’t make the programs at PBS, and we have no editorial control ultimately over what is put in the program. . . . Until a series is delivered to PBS for distribution, we have no editorial input or oversight over the producer or anyone connected to the project.
It was an evasion that the bureaucratic complexities of the system made possible. True, PBS did not actually “produce” programs and, in that most technical sense, could not be held responsible for what was in them. But this was to beg the question. As “gatekeeper” for the national distribution of programs, PBS daily rejected projects simply on the grounds that they “did not meet PBS standards.” A thick volume of “Standards and Practices” was, in fact, distributed to independent producers warning them that public television had to “maintain the confidence of its viewers,” and that, consequently, producers had to adhere strictly to the official PBS guidelines for quality. Moreover, once a series like The Africans was aired, it bore the PBS logo, and was promoted and distributed by PBS on cassette and often in companion book form, with educational aids, to schools and libraries. Such activities constituted an active endorsement and, like the decision to air the programs in the first place, was not merely an imposition, as Christensen implied.
In seeking support from the press and Congress, however, PBS executives deployed a more persuasive argument than their own impotence. For NEH or PBS to exert any judgment on the quality of The Africans, they claimed, would be to engage in a form of censorship. NEH, Christensen told the Los Angeles Times, is “not the Ministry of Truth,” and warned that if Cheney were to insist on entering the editing room “there will be no NEH funding in public television.”
This line of reasoning was more effective but no less spurious. It simply ignored the right (let alone the obligation) of a funder to impose guidelines and conditions on the recipients of its gifts. It also ignored the fact that CPB’s own standard contract with producers stipulated that it would be allowed to see rough cuts and make changes it regarded as necessary. Christensen’s argument also ignored PBS’s own responsibility—emphasized by PBS officials on other occasions—for the character of programs they distributed and promoted.
With PBS again polarized as the public’s David against the government Goliath, Brookhiser’s proposal was doomed. A move by 57 House members to stimulate an inquiry into the matters that Brookhiser had raised was easily rebuffed by the appropriate committee head, John Dingell. To consolidate these victories, PBS appointed a committee to review its own procedures. Stacked with an in-house majority, the committee avoided any systematic review of programming, and concluded with a pat on its own back:
PBS’s procedures . . . have encouraged programs of high quality that reflect a wide range of information, opinion, and artistic expression and that satisfy accepted journalistic standards.
The fact that business would proceed as usual became quickly apparent. In the fall of 1989, WNET presented a 90-minute documentary about the Palestinian intifada entitled Days of Rage. It turned out to be a catalogue of horror stories about the Israeli occupation, featuring interviews with Palestinian moderates and Israeli extremists, and omitting any mention of Palestinian terrorism.
During the battle over Days of Rage, WNET was besieged by public protests and membership cancellations but held fast to its decision. Reflecting later on his role in airing the program, WNET vice president Robert Kotlowitz displayed an attitude that was both perverse and at the same time characteristic of that of other public-television officials:
I thought the intifada program was a horror. It was a horror. And I wasn’t happy with having it on the air. But I’m still happy that we made the decision to go with it.
It was, by any standard, an extraordinary admission for a professional journalist. One would be hard put to imagine, for example, a CBS executive first acknowledging a story’s indefensibility and then claiming an achievement in running it.
In trying to understand this attitude, as well as the generally leftist bias of PBS, it is necessary to recognize that the entire public-television community (and that includes its friends in Congress) operates out of loyalty to what insiders refer to as the “mission.” Simply put, the mission is a mandate to give the public what commercial television, because it is “constrained by the commercial necessity of delivering mass audiences to advertisers,” allegedly cannot provide. The words belong to the current president of PBS, Bruce Christensen, and are contemporary. But they could as well have been taken from the Carnegie Commission report of 25 years ago. The mission is what makes public television “public.” It is its life principle and raison d’être. It is what justifies the hundreds of millions of government and privately contributed dollars necessary to keep the system going.
But the mission is also what provides a rationale under which extreme Left viewpoints have a presumptive claim on public air time. This is the rationale that justifies the indefensible propaganda of programs like Days of Rage and the promos for Communist guerrillas in Central America. It is the rationale under which a partisan journalist like Nina Totenberg, who was involved in the leak that nearly destroyed Clarence Thomas, could be assigned by PBS as its principal reporter and commentator on the hearings triggered by that very leak.
Just how much a part of the ethos of public television this attitude has become can be seen in a recent controversy involving Bill Moyers, who has been praised as a “national treasure” by the present PBS programming chief, Jennifer Lawson. Moyers had come under fire as the author of PBS’s only two full-length documentaries on the Iran-contra affair, The Secret Government (1987) and High Crimes and Misdemeanors (1990). Critics (of whom I was one) questioned whether these programs met the standards of fairness and balance that public television was legally supposed to honor. Moyers’s response was a tortured invocation of public television’s mission:
What deeper understanding of our role in the world could we have come to by praising Oliver North yet again, when we had already gotten five full days before Congress, with wall-to-wall coverage on network, cable, and public airwaves, to tell his side of the story? In fact, it hardly seems consistent with “objectivity, balance, and fairness” that the other side of his story got only two 90-minute documentaries on public television. [Emphasis added.]
For anyone not steeped in Moyers’s own political mythology this was an eccentric view of what had taken place. North, of course, had not produced his own network documentary. He had been hauled before a congressional committee largely made up of political enemies who were bent on exposing him as a malefactor and on discrediting the administration in which he had served. Yet because he had turned the tables on them and emerged from his ordeal with a positive approval rating, Moyers blithely and blandly assumed that the commercial networks had been telling only North’s “side of the story.” Therefore the mission of public television was not to present a balance of views within its own schedule, as its enabling legislation required, but to attack North more successfully than the stagers of the hearings had managed to do.
Quite apart from its absurdity, Moyers’s position reveals how out of date is the concept that originally inspired public television. For the fact that the Iran-contra hearings, which attempted to impugn the integrity and even the legitimacy of the Reagan presidency, were aired on all three networks, not to mention C-Span and CNN, means just the opposite of what Moyers seems to think it means. It means that public television can no longer position itself as the only channel on which anti-establishment views can be broadcast. Recognizing this occupation of its point on the spectrum, public television has sought a new space by positioning itself even more firmly on the Left.
There is also, perhaps, another factor at work here—bad conscience. This bad conscience stems, first, from PBS’s increasing reliance on big corporations in its search for funds. Thus, between 1973 and 1978, corporate “underwriting” of public television went up nearly 500 percent. By the 1980’s, corporate sponsorship accounted for almost as much of the public-television budget as its entire federal subsidy. Worse yet for the liberal conscience, the leaders in this trend, contributing more than half the total support, were big bad oil companies like Mobil, Exxon, and Gulf.
But even more significant is the degree to which, with the advent of cable, commercial stations have begun to compete directly with PBS. The Arts & Entertainment network (A & E) was started by the head of PBS’s cultural programming, and its schedule—whether showing European movies, or serious drama, or biographies of historical figures—is comparable to anything PBS can offer. Another cable channel, Bravo, features drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill, film from Olivier to Buñuel, and music from Monteverdi to Messiaen. The Discovery channel now repeats the nature shows that made PBS’s early career, while C-Span provides ’round-the-clock political interviews and discussions at the most serious level, including live sessions of Congress, and political conventions and meetings. The one PBS feature that these channels do not offer is the monotonous diet of left-wing politics.
But if left-wing politics is PBS’s ill-conceived solution to its identity crisis, it is also in the last analysis the key to its financial unease. For as the country has become more conservative, PBS’s radical posture has alienated a major part of public television’s audience of supporters as well as its Republican constituency in Congress. Indeed, it is only because Congress has remained stubbornly Democratic against the conservative tide that public television is not in even deeper financial trouble. But the current situation is inherently unstable and will remain so as long as public television fails to live up to its statutory mandate by presenting a fair balance of views reflecting the broad interests of the population that is being taxed to help support it.
1 The other five G-7 stations are WETA (Washington, D.C.), WTTW (Chicago), WQED (Pittsburgh), KCET (Los Angeles), and KQED (San Francisco).