The Common Good
February 2006

The politics of PBS

by Danny Duncan Collum | February 2006

Can we get spin-free public TV?

Faced with widespread public outrage over his attempts to institute a regime of conservative “political correctness” at PBS, Kenneth Tomlinson resigned in September as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In November, CPB Inspector General Kenneth Konz issue a report that detailed Tomlinson’s persistent violations of CPB rules, and even some violations of federal law.

Konz found that Tomlinson had violated CPB procedures by directly intervening to get the program The Journal Editorial Report on the air. The Report is a weekly half-hour show featuring columnists from the extremely conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Konz also found that Tomlinson violated federal laws when he hired a Republican political consultant for a report that, among other things, tallied the “pro-Bush” and “anti-Bush” sources on PBS and NPR programs. The report also criticized Tomlinson for consulting with the Bush White House over the hiring of new CPB President Patricia Harrison (a former chair of the Republican National Committee).

All of this is good news, so far as it goes. Tomlinson is gone, but Harrison remains. The Report is still on the air, and our puny public broadcasting institutions remain pathetically vulnerable to the next strong breeze from Congress, the White House, or corporate America.

Public broadcasting in America operates under the umbrella of the CPB, an institution funded by congressional appropriations and governed by a board of presidential appointees. CPB distributes funds to PBS, NPR, and various local affiliates to produce programming and maintain the network’s satellite distribution system. The CPB budget is not big enough to fund even a skeletal broadcasting service, so PBS, NPR, and each of their affiliate stations are left to hustle for the rest of their money from state governments, private foundations, private companies—and from you and me during pledge drives.

This highly inefficient system has resulted in a public broadcast system vulnerable to political pressure in several directions, and, as the difference between corporate “underwriting” and advertising has blurred, the system has become subject to the same market forces that rule the rest of the broadcast spectrum.

Back in the 1960s, public broadcasting was established to provide for the dissemination of alternative views and to meet the needs of populations that went unserved or underserved by commercial broadcasting. But, as organizations such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have documented, PBS public affairs programming has become indistinguishable from that of commercial outlets. And the network’s cultural and artistic programming is, with a few exceptions, dominated by “high culture” artifacts (preferably with a British accent) intended to buy prestige for their corporate sponsors.

Most of our public broadcasting problems go back to the fact that, unlike its counterparts in other industrial democracies, the system was established without an independent funding stream. For instance, in Britain, people pay a fee of about $215 per year per set for a “television license.” The license fees go directly to the BBC, which uses the money to run eight interactive TV channels, 10 radio networks, more than 50 local TV and radio services, and the bbc.co.uk Web site. These produce a staggering array of news, arts, educational, and entertainment programming. All of this gives the British people access to the range of political viewpoints and cultural expression needed to nourish a democracy.

Of course, the British system couldn’t be translated to America. And the license fee system is a fairly regressive way to fund public broadcasting. But the principle of a dedicated revenue stream, coupled with oversight from citizens, educators, and artists—instead of political appointees—could cure much of what ails our system.

An organization called Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, endorsed by a variety of journalists and activists, has put forward a proposal for a U.S. public broadcasting trust. CIPB estimates that it would cost $1 billion per year to operate a public broadcasting system that could pose a true alternative to corporate media. The organization proposes that the money could be raised by modest taxes of 2 to 5 percent on factory sales of digital television sets, the sale or transfer of commercial broadcast licenses, or broadcast advertising fees. It’s a place to start.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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