Tuesday, September 21, 2004

PBS Panders to Right With New Programming

FAIR: Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

PBS Panders to Right With New Programming

September 17, 2004

A new public television program called The Journal Editorial Report, featuring writers and editors from the arch-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, will debut tonight on public television stations around the country. The show joins Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered, hosted by conservative CNN pundit Tucker Carlson, and a planned program featuring conservative commentator Michael Medved as part of what many see as politically motivated decisions to bring more right-wing voices to public television.

According to reports in the public broadcasting newspaper Current (1/19/04, 6/7/04) and in the New Yorker (6/7/04), conservative complaints about the alleged liberal bias of the program Now with Bill Moyers contributed to the momentum to "balance" the PBS lineup. The new programs seem to be the result of that pressure. In fact, Now will soon see its role on public television diminish, as the program is cut from one hour to 30 minutes when Moyers voluntarily leaves the program later this year. He will be replaced by co-anchor David Brancaccio, formerly of the public radio business show Marketplace, who expresses no obvious ideology. If Carlson, Medved and the staff of the Wall Street Journal editorial page are all necessary to balance the liberal Moyers, by 2005 there will be no one on PBS to balance them.

At the center of this controversy is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides significant federal funding for public broadcasting projects. Two Bush appointees to the board last year, Cheryl Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines, are big donors to the Republican Party, and do not hide their political agenda. As Common Cause noted in December 2003, Gaines raised money for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga), and chaired his political action committee, GOPAC: "At the same time that Gaines was raising money for Gingrich's GOPAC, Gingrich was pushing Congress to cut all federal funds to public TV."

At a confirmation hearing for Halperin, Sen. Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) criticized a commentary by Moyers as "the most blatantly partisan, irresponsible thing I've ever heard in my life," adding that "the CPB has not seemed to be willing to deal with Bill Moyers and that type of programming." Halperin responded: "The fact of the matter is, I agree," though she said at the time there was little the CPB could do about it.

But, evidently, there is something the CPB could do. According to Ken Auletta's investigation in the New Yorker, the calls for drafting right-wing voices were being heard at PBS. Auletta reported that PBS president Pat Mitchell met with Lynne Cheney and conservative television producer Michael Pack to discuss a possible PBS series about Cheney's children's books. Though the project seemed to stall, Pack was soon appointed senior vice-president for television programming at the CPB.

Auletta also reported that after Gingrich told Mitchell that there weren't enough conservatives on PBS, Mitchell "proposed to Gingrich that he co-host a PBS town-hall program," an idea that was frustrated by Gingrich's contract with Fox News Channel.

The notion that public broadcasting should find ways to balance itself is odd, and accepts at face value the right-wing critique that PBS is biased to the left. If anything, PBS (and public broadcasting in general) is theoretically designed to balance the voices that dominate the commercial media. As the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act proposed, public broadcasting should have "instructional, educational and cultural purposes" and should address "the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities."

Instead, public television has in practice largely been a home for elite viewpoints, dominated by long-running political shows hosted by conservatives (Firing Line, McLaughlin Group, One on One) and by business shows aimed at the investing class (Nightly Business Report, Adam Smith's Money World, Wall $treet Week). When this line-up wasn't enough to insulate public TV from right-wing complaints in the mid-1990s, programmers responded by creating more series for conservatives like Peggy Noonan (Peggy Noonan on Values) and Ben Wattenberg (Think Tank).

Now PBS seems once again to be trying to placate right-wing critics, in this case by bringing to public broadcasting voices already well-represented in the mainstream media. Tucker Carlson's take on world affairs, for example, is available at least five days a week on CNN; it's not clear that he would say anything different on PBS, though in a test show (L.A. Times, 6/18/04) he referred to the Democratic convention's diversity goals as "a new affirmative action plan for gays, lesbians and cross-dressers," and called Indian evangelist Dr. K.A. Paul a "spiritual advisor to the scum of the Earth." ("He's willfully non-P.C.," explained WETA programming chief Dalton Delan.)

And the Wall Street Journal editorial page, included in every edition of the nation's second-largest newspaper, is already widely available-- and widely read. Ironically, the Journal has long been hostile to the notion of publicly funded broadcasting: After it was discovered that some public TV stations were selling their donors lists to political parties, a 1999 Journal editorial advised: "In a better world all this would lead Congress to do what it should have done a long time ago: cut off the public tap, freeing Barney, Big Bird and the other wonderful PBS creations to find a profitable niche on cable without having to shill for public television's other, more politicized, offerings."

The Journal's Paul Gigot, who's hosting the new show, said that it was not hypocritical for the Journal to now get on the public tap, saying (Boston Globe, 8/30/04): "We're putting up an enormous amount of resources in terms of staff time and energy. I don't think this is a free lunch."

PBS president Mitchell defended the recent programming decisions, telling a meeting of TV reporters (Miami Herald, 7/10/04): ''I suppose that we're being accused on the one side of being too liberal and on the other of being too conservative probably means we're getting it mostly right."

Given that PBS is responding to conservative complaints by adding more conservative shows, and is not responding in any substantive way to progressive complaints, one can only conclude that if the network had been "getting it mostly right," it'll now just be getting mostly right-wing.

There is one audience that seems pleased: Republican senators who were among PBS's most vocal critics. Coincidentally or not, as these discussions about programming and political bias were heating up, the Senate Commerce Committee was discussing the re-authorization of the CPB's funding. The committee convened to discuss the matter in late July; though the subject of liberal bias came up, even Lott "noted progress" on that front (Public Broadcasting Report, 7/23/04).

CPB was initially intended to be a "heat shield" for public broadcasting, protecting programmers from political pressures from partisan lawmakers who control the purse strings. It's long since become a mechanism for transmitting Congress' ideological desires to public broadcasting, and the new shows announced for public TV show that it's very effective in that role.

ACTION: Please ask PBS's Pat Mitchell what new shows are planned to balance the new conservative-oriented public TV shows.

Pat Mitchell, President and CEO
Phone: (703) 739-5000
Fax: (703) 739-5777

Or use the PBS comment form:

You might also want to contact your local PBS affiliate about PBS's rightward lurch: