The Right-Wing Attack on Public Broadcasting

By David Barsamian

The assault on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its associated entities, PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, and NPR, National Public Radio, is part of a broad range attack to dismantle and roll back a number of programs, some of them dating to the New Deal. The debate is not just about money but it's about a vision of 21st-century America and the communications needs of a democratic society. The contractors on America tell us that the nation can no longer afford the luxury of taxpayer-supported TV and radio programs. Newt Gingrich wants to "zero out" funding for CPB. The Corporation receives $285 million from Congress. The Speaker of the House says that PBS and NPR users are "a bunch of rich, upper-class people who want their toy to play with it." Public broadcasting, the Georgia Republican says, is "a sandbox for the elite." Before examining the present situation, it is important to give some background.

The CPB was created in 1967. From its origins, the mission of public TV and radio has been to provide an alternative to commercial stations. The Carnegie Commission Report, which led Congress to pass the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, argued that public TV and radio programming "can help us see America whole, in all its diversity," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard." The legislation was introduced and passed within nine months, such was the general support in both houses of Congress.

The Public Broadcasting Act was the last of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs and indeed it was the only one dealing with telecommunications. The system, structurally flawed in my view, was designed to be supported but not controlled by the federal government. CPB is private. Its 10-person board is appointed by the President. It disburses monies directly to hundreds of public TV and radio stations. The following is important to note because many people are confused on this point.

Scores of community radio stations and all five Pacifica Radio stations are not NPR members. However, they all receive substantial funding from CPB. In some cases, the loss of CPB monies will jeopardize the very existence of some stations. In most cases, there will be staff layoffs, reduction in news and public affairs programming, and an increase in on-air fundraising and underwriting spots. Alexander Cockburn misses this crucial aspect entirely.

In the March 6, 1995 issue of The Nation, he says, "I'm with Gingrich on this one." I share Cockburn's disappointment with PBS and NPR, but there is a larger principle at stake here and I think it deserves our attention and support. Community radio stations are one of the few mechanisms for dissent. We must preserve, protect, and expand them. We should not only resist the cuts, we should demand more money.

It didn't take long for CPB to start taking hits. The newly elected Nixon Administration quickly made known its aversion to the so-called left-liberal media and public television. One documentary in particular set off the President. It was called Banks and the Poor. It critically examined banking practices that exacerbated poverty in urban areas. The program closed with a list of 133 senators and congressmen with bank holdings or serving on Boards of Directors of banks. On June 30, 1972, Nixon vetoed CPB's authorization bill. Over the next two months, CPB's chairman, president, and director of TV all resigned. Nixon finally signed the authorization bill at the end of August.

The Nixon episode demonstrated the acute vulnerability of the public media. CPB took steps to protect itself in the future. It reorganized its relationship with local stations in terms of programming and decision-making. The Nixon veto led CPB to turn its attention to securing corporate underwriting, initially from major oil companies, as a new and outside source of funding.

The Carter presidency saw a steady growth in public TV, NPR, and community radio stations. When Ronald Reagan entered the White House, both PBS and NPR faced renewed political and economic pressures. On one level, the Reaganites were philosophically hostile to public broadcasting. It favored deregulation.

On another level, the hostility was more partisan, as the Nixon canard about left-liberal bias in the public media was again resurrected. Reagan cut funding for CPB. The State Department publicly called NPR "Radio Managua on the Potomac." A regular chorus of complainers, Jesse Helms, Patrick Buchanan, and others generated a cacophony of criticism. As despised as NPR is, it is public television by far that has borne the brunt of right-wing vituperation. PBS's Vietnam: A Television History was roundly condemned as being too critical of US policy in Indochina. PBS bent over backward to accommodate the right-wingers. A special one-hour response was broadcast. It was hosted by Charlton Heston and produced by Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media.

In 1986, there was a firestorm of protest over The Africans, a nine-part series written and hosted by Ali Mazrui of Kenya. Mazrui advanced the radical idea that imperialism and colonialism had adversely affected the peoples and countries of Africa and that their legacy was having a devastating impact. This was too much for the right. The wogs were out of control. National Geographic-like specials, of which there are no shortage of on PBS, featuring zebras, giraffes, and gorillas in the mist, are preferred to anything remotely relating to the reality of Africa.

At PBS, Bill Moyers' documentary about the Iran/Contra scandal, The Secret Government, ignited a conflagration of invective abuse. Days of Rage, a documentary on the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, drew similar near-hysterical criticisms. PBS was now run by an anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic clique. Note how these two concepts are conflated, a great achievement of propaganda.

Another documentary, Journey to the Occupied Lands, was strongly criticized in much the same way as Days of Rage, by CAMERA, an extreme pro-Israel media watchdog group. CAMERA also went after the Terry Gross "Fresh Air" interview program on NPR, accusing Gross of Israel-bashing. The dubiousness of the charge was illustrated when Gross refused to air an already recorded interview with Robert I. Friedman, author of Zealots for Zion, a book that is critical of the Israeli settler movement.

Programs featuring non-heterosexual protagonists are also unacceptable. The right wing vociferously complained about Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs' film about gay, black men. Tales of the City, a PBS mini-series about gay life in San Francisco in the 1970s was also raked over the coals by the guardians of public morality. Tales was discontinued, despite receiving record ratings. The handful of targeted documentaries demonstrate a clear pattern. Programs that depart from received wisdom and the straight and narrow path of right-wing ideology are not only to be condemned but are cited as proof positive that PBS is dominated by wild-eyed leftists. No amount of servility and subordination is satisfactory for the right wing. Nothing short of 100 percent compliance to their agenda is required. Like the Stalinists that they are, they will tolerate no dissenting voices. Only writers with the irony and imagination of Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and Lewis B. Carroll could do justice to the right's assertions that public broadcasting leans to the left.

The concerted campaign of vilification and intimidation has had an impact. PBS has gotten the message. Here are just a few examples. It has refused to air The Panama Deception, winner of the 1993 Academy Award. Deadly Deception, another Academy Award winner, was also turned down. As of this writing, it has refused to broadcast nationally the internationally acclaimed Manufacturing Consent. [Some local stations have broadcast these documentaries.] PBS has refused a series on human rights hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. A "Frontline" documentary on Rush Limbaugh that did air in February 1995 was a much-diluted fluff piece.

The intellectual author of much of the right-wing attack is David Horowitz. He was the former editor of Ramparts and a New Left figure in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, Horowitz espouses extreme right-wing ideas. He is the President of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles and he publishes Comint, a newsletter dedicated to ferreting out the Marxist/Leninists that control public radio and TV.

I saw Horowitz play a prominent role at the Public Radio Conference in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1993. I suspect that he wrote parts of the keynote address delivered by Senator Bob Dole. He used to work for the Kansas senator. Dole used the occasion to attack public radio, specifically Pacifica. He also criticized PBS, saying it was hiding its real agenda behind Big Bird and Barney. Dole's tone was menacing, a harbinger of things to come. The ensuing brouhaha resulted in a bill passed in Congress, ostensibly to punish Pacifica, that took away $1 million from stations. The right wing had its first taste of blood.

Horowitz, like many of his cohorts, does not lack for dollars. His center and newsletter are constantly churning out material attacking public radio and TV. Some choice comments: "PBS has become a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. . . has produced incredibly one-sided programming from the far-left. . . has served the Clinton agenda . . . . NPR has hyped the Black Panthers. . . NPR's sympathies are so much on the left side of the spectrum. . . There are no senior figures at NPR who are conservative. . . PBS programs regularly attack whites. . . CPB for 25 years has been run by Democrats and liberals. It needs to change itself or go down."

Gingrich contends that cable and the market can fill the void left by PBS. Can it? Forty percent of US homes do not receive cable. Beyond that, the commercial market does not seem inclined to produce the types of programming currently being offered by public radio and TV. Why should they? Commercial media are entirely driven by the need to generate ratings in order to sell airtime to advertisers. They are not in the media business for the fun of it. Roy Thompson, the Canadian media mogul, put it succinctly: "I buy newspapers to make money to buy more newspapers to make more money."

Notice that Gingrich does not even make the claim that commercial radio news can replace NPR or community radio. The current attack is about expanding corporate media power specifically by extending its control over valuable frequencies occupied by the hundreds of PBS and public radio stations. These frequencies are to be put on the auction block and will go to the highest bidder. Meetings have been held involving Gingrich and Senator Larry Pressler with Rupert Murdoch of the Fox Network, John Malone of TCI, and executives from Bell Atlantic to discuss the carving up of the public airwaves.

In the Newt world disorder, the notion of a public space or place is non-existent. Comments about the lack of money are transparently absurd. Monies are available to fund the Seawolf submarine, aircraft carrier battle groups, the B-2 bomber, the F-22 fighter, and to fight a two-front war. The US spends more money on the military than the rest of the world combined. Aid to Israel continues at record levels. Billions are available for giant agribusiness subsidies. Tens of billions are available for the bailout of Wall Street investors who are holding Mexican tesobonos, junk bonds. Corporations pay fewer taxes today than they did 30 years ago. Is this because there are fewer corporations? Hardly.

The tax code provides numerous loopholes. More and more US capital finds its way into off-shore tax-protected bank accounts in the Bahamas, the Grand Cayman Islands, and Panama. The notion of the market is applied selectively. The political system imposes welfare, tax write-offs, subsidies, and bailouts for the rich, and market discipline for everyone else.

This system, incidentally, is supported by both political parties. Gingrich can sanctimoniously rail against the poor and the evils of welfare while his own district, Cobb County, a rich suburb of Atlanta and home to Lockheed, receives more federal subsidies than all but two counties in the US.

The attack is highly politically charged. On January 27, 1995, Pressler sent a long letter that reeks of McCarthy-like innuendo to the head of CPB demanding to know among other things, "How many NPR staff have previously worked for Pacifica stations? Please list them by name and job category." The South Dakota senator then wanted to know, "How many NPR staff have previously worked for evangelical Christian stations? Please list them by name and job category."

A roll call of regular PBS programs reveals the following left-liberal bias: "Adam Smith's Money World," "Wall Street Week," "Washington Week in Review," "The Bloomberg Business Report," "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," "Tony Brown's Journal," "Ben Wattenberg's Think Tank," "The McLaughlin Group," McLaughlin's "One on One," and the longest-running PBS show of all, William Buckley's "Firing Line."

CPB has just approved funding for a new talk show featuring Reaganite Peggy Noonan. The two main NPR news programs are "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." All these programs taken in aggregate definitely constitute a bias, but it's not a left-liberal one. It is a measure of the success of massive right-wing propaganda that anyone could even consider these ludicrous charges and not burst into paroxysms of laughter.

In January 1995, Gingrich was asked if he thought the Republicans were returning to 1933. He said, no, not 1933 but 1760. Why 1760? The Speaker is, as he likes constantly to remind us, a trained historian. 1760 is a chilling thought. What were the social conditions? White male property owners were the only ones with any rights. There were the market wonders of slavery, genocide, child labor, seven-day work weeks, 14-16-18-hour work days, unfettered and unregulated capital control.

It's not just the public airwaves I'm talking about here. The New Right agenda is going to attempt to privatize libraries and schools, but first they want total control of the media. No independent media outside the corporate nexus will be allowed to exist.

There is an urgent need for a concerted effort to safeguard the public radio frequencies and TV channels. As problematic as the programming is, the public interest demands that its airwaves not be sold off. I can predict with certainty that once these frequencies and channels go commercial, they will never come back. The vultures of corporate power, in alliance with their lackeys in Congress, are salivating at the prospect of acquiring new stations and expanding their media monopolies. A democratic society needs a vital and diverse public broadcasting system. It is up to people to organize and defend their airwaves. David Barsamian is a radio journalist with a syndicated weekly public affairs program, "Alternative Radio." He is a regular contributor to Z Magazine, where an earlier version of this chapter first appeared in April 1995. His latest books are Keeping the Rabble in Line (with Noam Chomsky) and The Pen and the Sword (with Edward Said). A catalog of his interview tapes is available from Alternative Radio.
©1995, David Barsamian.

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This article is adapted from:
Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash
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