Monday, February 21, 2005

Ruffling Big Bird's Feathers

The New York Times
February 21, 2005

Ruffling Big Bird's Feathers

Since its beginnings more than three decades ago, public television has served its audience best as an independent, creative medium, and its goal has been to avoid political and commercial taint. Now, the Public Broadcasting Service, that loose network of 349 public stations, is under assault politically and economically. The need for money to pay for expensive shows has driven it to sell commercial time, and as a result, each year offers less relief from the noisy commercialism on other channels.

Even more troubling, the conservatives in Congress and the White House have apparently decided that independence is O.K. only as long as the programming doesn't stray from their political ideology. Since the federal government provides 15 to 20 percent of the budget for public broadcasting, Washington's heavy hand - which comes crashing down with petty and even ludicrous complaints - threatens to choke the creativity out of PBS.

Let's be direct: PBS is hardly the Mount Olympus it once was. With the cable explosion, public television is no longer the only source of what was once labeled "educational television," nor of more serious-minded documentaries, cultural and current-events programming. And as ultraconservatives and bottom liners circle, PBS appears to be too accommodating in response. When conservatives attacked the respected Bill Moyers, labeling him a dangerous liberal, PBS offered Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot. Whatever slight liberal flavor might be dug out of the Moyers broadcasts, those are openly ideological conservative editorialists. Will they do investigations like Mr. Moyers? Will they dig beneath the large, loud surface of TV punditry? If not, how, please, is PBS different from MSNBC?

When conservatives sputtered about the program in which Buster, a cartoon bunny rabbit, met a gay couple in his travels across America, PBS dropped the segment. For those concerned that a documentary had United States soldiers using foul words, PBS offered its affiliates a sanitized version that several critics labeled the "War is heck" show. And bowing to the popularity of HBO, PBS is planning to offer some of the paid-channel's programs, expletives deleted of course.

With all these difficulties, PBS and its very independent affiliates still offer some of the best shows around. "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" is intelligent, civilized discourse on the day's issues. "Nova," "Frontline" and "Masterpiece Theater" still deserve their stars, and "Sesame Street" remains the network's apple pie.

The challenge is to keep public television not merely alive but vibrant. If this Congress and president make their political mark on PBS, what's to stop the next president from doing the same? Politicians should not be allowed to trim public broadcasting to their liking.

The best long-term proposal would be to use funds from the eventual sale of the broadcast spectrum to establish a trust fund for the system. Some critics have argued that a trust fund offers too much independence from political overseers. But the far-sighted in every political camp should recognize that a little more financial independence is precisely what public broadcasting needs.