Pox populi

As long as Presidents appoint its rulers, Public Broadcasting will remain a hopeless mess.


James Ledbetter
November 11, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Thirty years ago this week, on Nov. 7, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, ushering in the modern era of federally funded public television and radio. The legislation was born of a seemingly indestructible optimism: LBJ promised that taxpayer funds would help eradicate regional discrepancies in education, expand the nation's cultural heritage and even help us understand foreign nations.

LBJ was no global village idiot. He was a consummate political realist who knew from personal experience the political power inherent in broadcasting. The law that Johnson signed had been drafted by his own staff, and contained a crucial but little-debated provision that allowed the president to appoint all 15 board members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the central body that controls the system's federal funds (which today stand at about $250 million annually).

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More than any other factor, that presidential privilege has politicized the system of public broadcasting. Every administration has loaded the CPB board with blatant political cronies, including pollsters, media consultants and speech writers. Their allegiance to individual presidents, the Democratic and Republican parties and to Washington's permanent governing class stifles public broadcasting and makes the possibility of genuine reform remote.

Three decades after LBJ's bill became law, optimism has been replaced by snarling. There is no governmental consensus about how well public broadcasting performs its functions. There is, despite promises from LBJ and many of his successors, no consensus about how -- or even if -- a permanent method of funding public television and radio should be established. There isn't even an American consensus on what public broadcasting means. The Republican majorities that took over Congress in 1995 made public broadcasting their first and most fervent target. In the new Republican order, the very use of the term public was suspect. "I don't understand why they call it public broadcasting," Newt Gingrich said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing public about it; it's an elitist enterprise. Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting."

The confusion over what constitutes public broadcasting is not merely a political posture. A neutral public television viewer might well wonder what, exactly, is "public" about a quilting show. Why does public television avoid almost any original comedy programming, but remains perfectly content to air 10-year-old British sitcoms? Why should taxpayer dollars support a supposedly noncommercial medium that now uses, in some cases, the idea of a clutter-free broadcast environment to sell "underwriting" spots at a rate three or four times higher than that charged by commercial broadcasters?

The lack of consensus on all these questions suggests a system in turmoil, and one that must change. And for a time in 1995, it appeared that the Republican-led attacks on public broadcasting might force the system to confront these harder questions.

But despite months of huffing and puffing, the GOP found it impossible to blow down the house. Ultimately, little more was accomplished than a medium-sized cut from the CPB budget. While public television and radio managers prided themselves on stopping the congressional onslaught, they actually -- in classic Washington fashion -- preserved an inadequate status quo. Indeed, when the federal managers of CPB, the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio did defend themselves, they often seconded key points made by their supposed critics.

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We are inefficient and wasteful, public TV managers seemed to say, and drew up plans to eliminate so-called secondary stations. In New York City and Pittsburgh, such stations were formally decommissioned. The fact that the remaining public TV stations in those markets provide virtually no programming for local communities did not perturb the all-powerful accountants who have taken over public broadcasting.

We should let the private sector run public broadcasting, said the managers of public TV and radio in response to congressional insistence. That's why Turner distributes PBS videos, and why the production company responsible for "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" is majority-owned by John Malone's TCI, one of the nation's largest cable firms. It's also why the theme song for public radio's daily "Marketplace" suddenly shifts, as the program's sponsorship by General Electric is announced, into the familiar GE jingle "We bring good things to life."

As if in complete agreement with Gingrich's assertion that Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting, station KBDI in Colorado began running Limbaugh's atrocious television program every weeknight. And Atlanta's public TV station, WPBA, brought Gingrich into its studio to tape a fund-raising spot for its spring 1995 pledge drive. "Tell 'em Newt sent you," said the speaker who had denounced public broadcasting as elitist. Another tactic practiced by the CPB in the face of Republican criticism was to throw money at any conservative who showed up at their door. CPB signed up lobbyist Vin Weber, a longtime Gingrich political ally, to a $100,000 contract, even though Weber publicly stated that in his opinion CPB should receive no federal funds. The contract had to be revoked when some CPB directors reminded their colleagues that the CPB is barred by federal law from lobbying.

Republican speech writers suddenly became public television's hottest producers. Peggy Noonan got $100,000 from the CPB to produce a poorly reviewed series on values, and George Bush speech writer Tony Snow got $155,000 from the CPB for a documentary and a two-hour special. Who says conservatives don't want federal money for public broadcasting?

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The farcical public broadcasting "debate" of 1995 demonstrated that the mandarins who run American public broadcasting have become so cowed by decades of political attack and interference that they can no longer even pay lip service to the legislative requirement of political independence. A system politicized at its highest levels is bound to react with mere symbolism and back-room buyoffs.

American public television and radio are in need of dire reform. Public broadcasting's programming and funding must be changed, its purpose clarified. No single measure will accomplish it all. But tying the top management of public broadcasting to the mucky machinery of electoral politics is a fundamental flaw. Until that LBJ legacy is eradicated, any other reforms are unlikely.


James Ledbetter

James Ledbetter is a staff writer for the Village Voice and the author of "Made Possible By ...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States," published this month by Verso.

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