- FrontPage Magazine - http://www.frontpagemag.com -

The Politics of Public Television

Posted By David Horowitz On October 28, 2010 @ 12:43 am In FrontPage | 17 Comments

Visit Commentary Magazine.

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.

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  pro-grams.  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  E1l  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  air-waves,  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 Bufiuel,  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.

*The  other five G-7  stations are WETA (Washington,  D.C.), WTTW  (Chicago),  WQED  (Pittsburgh),  KCET (Los Angeles), and KQED  (San  Francisco).


Article printed from FrontPage Magazine: http://www.frontpagemag.com

URL to article: http://www.frontpagemag.com/2010/david-horowitz/the-politics-of-public-television/

Copyright © 2009 FrontPage Magazine. All rights reserved.