The Politics of Public Television

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Editor’s note: Writing in Commentary magazine in December 1991, David Horowitz penned a detailed critique of PBS, in which he showed how public television promoted left-wing politics under the guise of balanced journalism while escaping accountability from the taxpayers who subsidized its politically skewed programming. The piece, reprinted below, remains timely today, as the recent firing of Juan Williams over seemingly innocuous remarks has once has again revealed the gulf between the politics of public broadcasting and the public it allegedly represents.

Created by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the present system of public  television is by now one of the last E1l 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. ESPITE  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. *

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  protege,  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.

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  • Bear from Russia

    How nice: “anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan” . How Brzeziński admited recently USA lured USSR to Afghanistan to make a Vietnam like war for soviets. CIA created Ben Laden and modern Islam terrorism. But 30 years ago these bandits were “anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan” and now US fight in Afghanistan itself. History has irony.

  • Bear from Russia

    How nice "anti-Communist rebels in Afghanistan". As Brzeziński admitted recently US lured USSR to Afghanistan to make a Vietnam like war for the soviets. CIA created Ben Laden. And now US fights with these "anti-Communist rebels" itself. History has irony.

  • Beth

    In the Article Above:….

    "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"

    Where do I begin?..

    With the students? … with the parents?

    The bottom line is this:

    "We reap what we sow"

    Keep visiting the liars – and they'll keep the power of your future.

  • Jim Johnson

    It is amazing how such a boring redundant net work could stay on television with few watcher but much finance.
    If you want left wing TV then watch Link when once in a great while they have something good on. Well when they aren't filling the time with boring music.

    Of course they aren't financed by Government or corporation. In fact i don't think they are financed by any body.

    But I learned more about today's Iran than I learned from any other channel. I also learned more about North Korea than I learned from any other channel. It was far from pro communist.

    Of course the same can not be said about the in between show commentators who might as well be a bunch of Communists

    • Jim Johnson

      I think the same thing.

  • rrbs

    How would you define "economic democracy"? I would define it as individuals that are free to participate in the economy as they see fit. e.g. capitalism.

  • davarino

    You want fair and balanced? It sure aint PBS. Let the free market decide cause the government sure cant, but the left knows, that if the free market decides, they lose. And we thought the USSR was the only place that had propaganda TV. You younger people dont even know how controlled the network news was back in the 60s and 70s. I remember as a kid flipping to the different news channels and it was amazing how they were all on the same subject at the same time, all the time. I wondered at the time how that could be.

    If you ideas are so great then let them withstand the free market. Let the people decide. Oh, I guess they are, now that Obama let everyone know exactly what the left's ideas are. They are now voting on a fair and balanced display of the ideas.

    Thanks O

  • Al C

    "The Secret Government (1987), which insinuated what no congressional investigation had ever established: that the CIA was a rogue institution subverting American policy. … "

    Spoken like a true Scaife-funded puppet. "Rogue institution" sums up he conclusions of the CHURCH COMMITTEE nicely … also John Kerry's investigation of BCCI, statements of Iran contra investigators (those who weren't Republican stooges doing the bidding of Dick Cheney and Lee Hamilton, who buried the truth about CIA and drugs), federal investigations of Air America and Southern Air Transport, and of course the Watergate probe demonstrated clearly that the CIA is a nest of rogue jackals. Barbara Boxer has spoken publicly about the CIA and drugs. Then you have untold thousands of books and articles by independent investigators – many of them former CIA agents themselves – and journalists, WikiLeaks, etc.

    David Horowitz himself,as I mentioned, takes Scaife (CIA) funding, so he's one of those rogues, and this explains his trademark inane denials in defense of a ROUGE agency. ]

    • scum

      nicely put. Thanks Al C.

  • John Son

    If the US Govt did not fund NPR it would have folded like a cheap pair of pants….

    More tax payer money wasted on a losing proposition…NPR has not made a dime since its inception…..sounds like Amtrak, yet another federally funded boondoggle! Think about it.

  • PBSfree

    It does, however, provide nuggets of information; Goldstone, Colin Powell on Rachel Corrie … etc. LINK TV, Democracy NOw, PBS… same brand with different wrapping…
    Post: Richard Goldstone / Lee Hamilton Bombshell:
    Who C…

  • Fred Dawes

    TV Is about following the leader to the end game.

  • Ghostwriter

    I don't know if you know this by my local PBS station,KAET for a couple of years ran a program from Britain called "MI-5." To me,the show was,in my opinion,a carnival of anti-Americanism. Few,if any,Americans who showed up on the show were good guys. Most of the time,the only Americans who showed up were villains or crazy people. Although it had some great drama,the way it portrayed this country left much to be desired. Recently,it was taken off the air and replaced with other programming.
    All in all,I hope another network in this country isn't stupid enough to get this show.

  • scum

    Classic Horowitz when it comes to Agee. Agee, of course, exposed the illegal activities of the CIA, a small fact purposely overlooked by David the Goliath. Moreover, Horowitz once again forgets to mention the countries that Agee was thrown out of BECAUSE OF EXPLICIT PRESSURE FROM THE CIA. Agee was hounded around the world. Of course, this is a site devoted not to the truth, but rather to a 'conservative' presentation of such. What we need is objective and honest evaluation, not more partisan nonsense.

  • badaboo

    Yea everyone should be balanced , bi-partisan and non-opinionated …..LOL…like David .

  • Simon T.

    I think this article is great to understand the politics behind the television and print media. There are many important things noted here.
    Simon T.