The Common Good
August 2005

Balanced' Coverage

by Danny Duncan Collum | August 2005

Colonizing the last commercial-free slice of the broadcast spectrum.

The Republican campaign to wipe out any vestigial alternative to free-

The Republican campaign to wipe out any vestigial alternative to free-market ideology and culture in the United States has now become at least as broad, comprehensive, and relentless as any Stalinist or Maoist campaign against religion or free-thinking ever was. In the last few months, this campaign has reached its climax as the heavily armed culture warriors of the Right have moved in on the last nonprofit strongholds in public broadcasting.

According to a May 2 article in The New York Times, there are now political commissars at PBS (they call them "ombudsmen"). These are Party operatives assigned to police the political content of news and public affairs programming. They’re looking for "balance." So far that’s meant that 30 minutes of fair and independent reporting focused mostly on the environmental and human costs of the free market (the tragically shrunken post-Moyers NOW program) has to be followed by 30 minutes handed over to the hard-right propagandists of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Kenneth Tomlinson, the Bush-appointed chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, has served notice that the investigative reporting done on the weekly series Frontline will be similarly "balanced" in the future. Eventually all of this will probably mean a flood of corporate-subsidized propaganda that will dwarf the puny efforts of private foundations. PBS will become an official state mouthpiece, the evil twin of the old Tass News Agency in the Soviet Union.

There has, thus far, been no bloodshed in this Cultural Revolution. But when you’ve got billions of dollars and every commercial cable channel at your disposal, a bullet in the back of the head is needlessly messy. The Forces of the Market can simply eliminate independent brain function while keeping the average American body alive and consuming.

WE MUST ADMIT that the revolutionaries of the Right have been patient. Their campaign for media hegemony makes Mao’s Long March look like a 40-yard dash. It began almost 25 years ago, in the Reagan era, with a wave of media deregulation that trashed limits on commercial minutes per hour and broadcast license requirements for public service and political fairness. In the past decade, the Party has achieved its goal of repealing meaningful restrictions on monopoly ownership of media outlets and mounted crippling attacks on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

While the hard-core revolutionaries have wielded the levers of state power against dissent, the Party apparatus has worked through various talk-radio programs and other front organizations to mount a repetitive drumbeat of dogmatic condemnation and personal invective against any voice of dissent. "Feminazis...political correctness...reverse discrimination...LIBERAL!" These code words became as powerful as were "running dog," "bourgeois individualist," or "Trotskyite" under Stalin or Mao.

Today the pincers of this inside-outside strategy are closing, and the last commercial-free slice of the broadcast spectrum has been colonized.

None of this is to say that PBS was ever really any center of resistance to corporate power in America. In fact, over the past 15 years, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has thoroughly documented a pattern of pro-business bias in PBS public affairs shows. PBS affiliates regularly air a lineup of business and investment shows. But Kenneth Tomlinson is not crying out for a "Nightly Labor Report" to balance these. On economic stories, FAIR found that 75 percent of the sources presented on PBS were from corporations or Wall Street, while only 1.5 percent were from labor unions (who do still represent about 13 percent of the U.S. workforce).

FAIR also found that PBS cheerfully presented hours of corporate-funded documentaries extolling the economics of the free market. The 2002 globalization series Commanding Heights, funded by BP, FedEx, and Enron, was an especially egregious example. Meanwhile, documentaries partially funded by labor unions were rejected solely because of the union taint.

This pro-corporate imbalance on PBS was, in fact, one of the wrongs that NOW with Bill Moyers set out to right. Now we’ve got Moyers’ replacement, poor David Brancaccio, with 30 minutes in which to "balance" every other channel on the dial. And the day draws nigh when it will become impossible, in this once-great land, to think an un-sponsored thought.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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