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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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