The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is unhampered by the forces of the free market. As a public organization, it can survive even if its services are no longer needed or if they can be provided more efficiently and inexpensively by others. This is because PBS receives government funding so it doesn’t have to worry about competition or ratings.
In the 1960s, when PBS began, it was the only broadcaster with a format of history, arts, culture, and children’s programs. Its motto was, “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” Of course, for decades, there was no other broadcaster with the PBS format. But now there are over 200 cable outlets, many offering the same fare. These threaten PBS’s unique status. And, even more channels with PBS type formats are evolving which will further erode PBS’s raison detre. But once the government begins funding an agency, it is loath to reduce or discontinue funding. So Big Bird, Barney and Bill Moyers can relax. Their status as wards of the state is secure.
In 1969, PBS cost the taxpayers five million dollars but for this year’s programming we will have to cough up $350 million. Of course, PBS has always had successful fund raising drives because viewers are led to believe stations are in dire financial straits. These fundraisers prominently highlight the total dollars that the drive must produce but the station’s actual financial position is never revealed.
In its embryo stages, it was assumed that the public television forum would not allow the expression of political opinions or even permit news programs. But news programs did evolve, the most prominent being the Jim Lehrer News Hour. This nightly program recapped the news of the day followed by in- depth reports of significant stories: reports that “interpreted” the events.
Another feature was a discussion of news events by a panel of five or six newspaper journalists from around the nation. These journalists would report the reactions of people in their region of the nation. To speak for the Southern states Lehrer picked Cynthia Tucker, a journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. If you have read any of Ms. Tucker’s columns you know she is an ultra Leftist. To paraphrase Will Rogers, Ms. Tucker never met a government program she didn’t like. Does she represent the predominant viewpoint of the majority of Southerners? I doubt it.
Although it vehemently denies it, PBS has, over the years, allowed partisan politics to color the contents of its programming. However, its denials became less credible in 1999 when it was discovered that PBS stations had been sharing their donor lists with Democrats. In return, Democrats made their lists of donors available to PBS stations. This exchanging of donor lists had been taking place since 1981. It seems that both PBS and the Democrats sensed that they attracted supporters with similar views.
During the Watergate hearings, PBS interrupted regular programs to present gavel-to-gavel coverage of the event. However, PBS refused to alter its regular programming for President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings as well as any of the fund raising scandals during his administration.
It is not surprising that there is considerable opposition to the Federal funding of PBS. Also, questions have been raised about the liberal bias in its programming as well as an agenda that seems to favor Democrats. In 1995, a collection of critical articles was published in Public Broadcasting & the Public Trust“, edited by David Horowitz and Laurence Jarvik. A few years later, the book, PBS: Behind the Screen, by Laurence Jarvik, also painted an unflattering portrait of public TV. In a review of the book, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Again and again, Mr. Jarvik provides examples of dishonesty and hypocrisy at the heart of the public broadcasting enterprise”.
Especially annoying to me are PBS’s distorted “historical” documentaries; primarily those manufactured by Ken Burns. Most people today get their information from television and historical documentaries are assumed to be factual rather than agenda-driven. But Burn’s portrayals of, for example, Jefferson, the Civil War, and especially, President Lincoln make no attempt at objectivity.
A few years ago, Burns appeared on a call in program to discuss his documentary “The Civil War“. One caller, a Civil War buff, took issue with numerous parts of the documentary and eventually challenged Burns to a public debate. Burns wisely declined claiming, “I’m a filmmaker not a historian”. But the historians Burns uses for advice are indeed a select group. And the group surely does not include Charles Adams, Thomas DiLorenzo or Jeffrey Hummel.
Burns admits that his films of the Civil War, Baseball and Jazz were simply “a history of race relations.” But, by following this ideological agenda, Ken Burns abandoned artistic merit and impaired the quality of these documentaries. His flawed approach is especially disappointing in the Jazz series. He makes Jazz simply a “black” musical form, spends too much time on racial problems, and ignores countless great white Jazz artists, especially contemporary ones like Scott Hamilton and Dianne Krall.
Aristotle’s concepts inspired the ancient Greeks, Voltaire’s ideas influenced the Age of Enlightenment and today, thanks to PBS, we have the wisdom of Bill Moyers. PBS has placed the sagacious Mr. Moyers in a new weekly series, “Now with Bill Moyers”. For a preview of this weekly series we need to look back at the PBS special following the September 11 terrorist attack. Moyers and a panel of experts discussed how America should respond. Moyers chosen panel included Cornell West, Alan Dershowitz and “Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler. You get the picture.
The February 25th issue of The Weekly Standard contained an article that revealed unflattering aspects of Moyers’ modus operandi. These quotes by Moyers are eye opening. “The right gets away with blaming liberals for their efforts to help the poor, but what the right is really objecting to is the fact that the poor are primarily black.This crowd is really fighting a retroactive civil rights war to prevent the people they dislike because of their color from achieving success in American life.”
Moyers despises what he calls the “religious right” often referring to them as the “religious” or “religious true believers”. This Moyers’ comment is particularly alarming: “Not just religious true believers threaten our democracy. It’s true believers in the God of the market who would leave us to the ruthless forces of unfettered monopolistic capital where even the laws of the jungle break down.”
Is it time to close the curtain on Big Bird? Or, at least, shouldn’t we refuse to let our tax dollars be used for this liberal monstrosity? Now PBS is allowed to use paid commercial advertisements to sponsor some of their programs. Are commercial sponsorships and government funding compatible? I don’t think so. And, since PBS claims that the federal government provides less than 12% of its funding, surely they could survive without it.
After President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he addressed those who were attending the signing ceremony. To show how far broadcasting had come, he began his remarks with a reference to the first telegraphic message in 1844 when Samuel Morse transmitted the question, “What hath God wrought?” When we look at today’s leviathan, agenda-driven Public Broadcasting System, we might well ask, “What hath LBJ wrought?”
April 16, 2002