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
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
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
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
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
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
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.