PBS, NPR Deserve Federal Funding, But Need Balance

Posted May 18, 2005 at 5:05pm

Beyond the ridiculous flap over alleged Republican efforts to “censor” public broadcasting or “push it to the right,” there’s a bigger question: Do we need government-assisted public broadcasting at all any more?

After all, public television no longer is alone in broadcasting high-end cultural, public affairs and educational programming, and its share of the TV audience has sunk to one-twentieth of the prime-time cable average.

And National Public Radio just got a $326 million gift from the late Joan Kroc, the largest charitable donation ever to a cultural institution.

So should taxpayers, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, continue to shell out $300 million a year to subsidize the Public Broadcasting System and its local affiliates?

And should NPR and its affiliates continue to get $100 million a year from taxpayers?

The question was raised in a May 9 Chicago Tribune editorial that followed the first of two New York Times stories asserting that CPB’s Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, was arousing the ire of public TV and radio executives by pushing for political balance.

“Liberals are starting to see a pattern they don’t like at all — the beginnings of a conservative coup that seeks to impose a right-wing agenda on public television,” the Tribune wrote. “This, after years in which conservatives fumed about what they perceived as a distinct liberal tilt to some PBS programming.

“There’s a way to end all the conspiracy theories and stop dead the accusations of political meddling. Get the federal government out of the business of funding public television. As long as government money flows into PBS coffers, tensions will continue about what gets televised — and what doesn’t — on those public airwaves.”

The Tribune also argued that cable channels such as A&E, National Geographic, Discovery and the History Channel were matching PBS in delivering quality programming and that PBS long ago was forced to abandon its non-commercial character.

I think it would be worth it for Congress to hold hearings and decide whether to reauthorize CPB and public funding of TV and radio, which hasn’t happened since 1996.

On balance, I think public radio and TV can make a good case for continued funding based on their still-unique roles in media and some pioneering new ventures that PBS has in the works for teaching reading to young children and American history to teenagers.

But in exchange for federal support, radio and TV owe the public balance — and that is what, in the most modest and non-intrusive way, CPB’s Tomlinson has been trying to install.

Specifically, believing that the PBS show “NOW,” formerly hosted by Bill Moyers, was tilted to the left, Tomlinson authorized a $10,000 study of the content of the show.

He also provided CPB startup funding for two conservative shows, the “Journal Editorial Report,” featuring the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, and “Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered.”

And Tomlinson appointed two ombudsmen, liberal former broadcaster Ken Bode and conservative former Readers Digest editor William Shulz, to hear and investigate complaints about PBS and NPR accuracy and bias.

Tomlinson said that monitoring of NPR was triggered by testimony from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) that NPR’s coverage of the Middle East was persistently biased against Israel. That’s a complaint often raised by others in the U.S. Jewish community.

The New York Times’ coverage of Tomlinson’s actions — triggered, evidently, by complaints from within PBS and NPR — prompted two House Democrats, John Dingell (Mich.) and David Obey (Wis.), to demand an investigation of possible “censorship.”

And Moyers, speaking at a liberal media reform conference last weekend in St. Louis, alleged that Tomlinson was trying to de-fund PBS the way Richard Nixon once did.

Moyers revealed where he’s coming from politically by declaring that those out to get him were “people who are hollowing out the middle class even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil.”

Tomlinson said his aim has been to save PBS and NPR, not destroy them. “I did not think it was healthy for public broadcasting to have the perception problem it has,” he told me. “It was exacerbated by the lack of political sensitivity at PBS,” which clung to polls showing that the public does not regard PBS as biased, despite the content of some shows like “Now.”

“Having the hour-long Moyers show on every Friday night without any attempt at a show from the conservative viewpoint is kind of in-your-face to people in the red states. You’re never going to want to take Bill Moyers off the air. I just wanted to establish some common-sense balance.”

In the meantime, the question remains: Do we need PBS and NPR? Actually, I think, we do. NPR, despite a liberal tilt on many issues, is the only radio source in America with worldwide range and penetrating depth.

NPR itself, the producer of programming, receives only about one-tenth of its funding from the government through CPB. But local stations probably could not survive without it.

And PBS, despite competition from other channels remains the standard for high-IQ cultural programming.

And both PBS and CPB have plans for new ventures other outlets are unlikely to perform.

A PBS panel headed by former Netscape CEO James Barksdale and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt envisions major initiatives in early childhood learning, homeland security communications, public health information and local civic affairs broadcasting.

CPB has authorized two $20 million initiatives: one to foster documentaries on America’s challenges in the Islamic world and another to use various media to teach civics and history to teenagers.

And, while cable channels like Disney, Noggin and Nickelodeon are improving children’s programming, PBS shows like “Sesame Street,” “Between the Lions,” “Postcards from Buster” and “Maya and Miguel” lead the way in educational content.

Moreover, CPB has just proposed a multi-faceted project to the Department of Education to create four new programs to teach low-income children aged 2 to 8 how to read.

Someday, private broadcasting may make public broadcasting unnecessary. But that time hasn’t arrived. In the meantime, public broadcasting owes the public political balance — without screams of “censorship.”