A Rumble on Sesame Street

Three lessons from the battle over public broadcasting


Ten years ago, the Gingrich Congress briefly toyed with the idea of defunding public broadcasting—an event we all should remember, because our liberal friends and relatives are still e-mailing us petitions to stop it. According to The Nation, when the conservative PBS personality Ben Wattenberg heard that public TV might lose its federal support he said, "What! Just when we've taken it over?"

The source for the quote wasn't clear, and it's possible the statement was misattributed. But whether or not Wattenberg said those words, the Republican hive has certainly embraced the thought. In 1992, after conservative senators raised a stink about some programs on the leftist Pacifica radio network, Congress renewed its funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with a requirement attached to establish "a comprehensive policy and set of procedures" to ensure "objectivity and balance." In the ensuing decade, despite the short-lived Gingrich proposal, subsidies to the CPB actually increased, while the politics on display on PBS and NPR—even, for a while, on Pacifica—edged a bit to the right. Wattenberg got a public TV gig. So did Fred Barnes and Peggy Noonan.

It was an instructive experience for the Republicans. Threaten to defund PBS, and you'll get a lot of angry mail from constituents who think that would mean the end of Sesame Street. Nudge PBS in a new direction, and you can acquire a soapbox or two.

Now Ken Tomlinson, the CPB's Republican chairman, is living Ben Wattenberg's dream. He has encouraged PBS to launch more conservative programs, while relentlessly criticizing Now with Bill Moyers for its leftist leanings. He hired an outside consultant to review Now's political slant, and has been in discussions to arrange a similar study of NPR's Middle East coverage. He has foisted ombudsmen on PBS and NPR (which already had an ombudsman), telling them to monitor the networks for bias; they answer to Mary Catherine Andrews, whose last job was working as a communications officer at the Bush White House. All in all, he has provoked a lot of anger, especially among Democrats. Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and David Obey (D-Wis.) have persuaded the CPB's inspector-general to investigate Tomlinson's activities, suggesting that he has become "a source of political interference into public broadcasting."

Whatever other lessons you draw from this fight, here are three you shouldn't lose sight of:

1. Government money comes with political strings. This was true before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting even existed. The Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which conceived of the CPB, was nominally independent but in practice took its cues from the Johnson administration. According to Ralph Engelman's 1996 book Public Radio and Television in America, which based its account on James Robertson's oral history of educational TV, Douglass Cater's basement office in the White House was the "command center" for creating the Carnegie Commission; Cater and his colleagues "made sure that the Commission was made up of both dependable members of the Cambridge/Washington axis and close personal and political associates of President Johnson." Nixon, in turn, was repelled by public TV's eastern-liberal slant and tried to eliminate virtually all its political programs. He lost that battle, but he did pass a measure giving the CPB more leverage over programming.

In the Reagan years, State Department flunky Otto Reich infamously informed NPR staffers that they were "Moscow on the Potomac." In one account of the meeting, former NPR correspondent Bill Buzenburg told The American Prospect that Reich "called us 'National People's Radio' and kept saying 'you guys should be broadcasting from Havana,'" then "launched into a strict ideological attack, meant to bring pressure on NPR to change its coverage….[W]hat he'd do was take a piece saying what State had said and what the Sandinistas said and he'd go, 'Look at what you did here,' taking specific quotes out of the context of the whole story. It was infuriating. His problem wasn't with the stories in their entirety, but with the fact that there were other points of view, critical points of view, in them."

The range of views on PBS is broader than both left and right usually prefer to acknowledge. (There's a reason why conservative critics of public TV focus on its documentaries, which are more likely to emerge from the left, while leftist critics cast their eyes on its talking-head shows, which tend to be more open to the right.) But if there's a perspective that dominates the network, it might best be described as frightened liberal. One rarely noted consequence of this is that proposals to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting get more support from the radical left than from Republican politicians, though of course the leftists don't call it "privatization." They call it "independence," and they envision it taking the form of a nonprofit trust fund that no longer has to rely on the goodwill of Congress for its money.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the GOP's present political leanings, the Republicans' ideal public-broadcasting model hails not from the private sector but from the federal foreign-policy bureaucracy. Ken Tomlinson is not the first veteran of the Voice of America to occupy a high position in the public broadcasting world—those talent pools have been mixing for at least a decade—but he is the first person simultaneously to chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the government's international radio and TV operations, from the Voice of America to Radio Martí.

2. "Balance" can be a bludgeon. When the Senate added that business about "objectivity and balance" to the check it gave the CPB in 1992, it didn't pull that language out of the world's greatest deliberative ass. It came from the CPB's 1967 charter, which requires a "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature."

Tomlinson has told The New York Times that in his view, that rule requires "a program schedule that's not skewed in one direction or another." He insists that he doesn't want to tamper with individual shows, but in 2003 he complained in a letter that Now "does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting." So is it the schedule as a whole or every individual program that has to be unbiased?

It's no surprise that liberal groups are up in arms about Tomlinson's efforts. What's interesting is that many of the same groups are nostalgic for the Fairness Doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission's former policy of requiring radio and TV stations to "balance" contentious commentary with opposing opinions. The doctrine, abandoned in 1987, did more to chill speech than to encourage it: If any controversial commentary can provoke a complaint with the FCC, the easiest thing to do is simply to moderate your tone. "Media reform" groups have regretted the loss of the law for years, and three of them—Media Matters, the Media Access Project, and Democracy Radio—are now spearheading a drive to bring it back, arguing dubiously that "news consumers, particularly those of talk radio, are overwhelmingly exposed to a single point of view."

Media Matters has been one of the loudest critics of Tomlinson's reign. So has the group Free Press, which has endorsed the Fairness Doctrine campaign.

As Jack Shafer pointed out this month in Slate, the CPB's "objectivity and balance" standard "mirrors the language of the Fairness Doctrine." Tomlinson isn't directly censoring shows, after all—not even Now. He's pushing for "balance," and the result could be a chilling effect. Memo to the left: This is what happens when rules you like are enforced by people you don't.

3. This administration likes to be in control. Actually, every president's administration likes to be in control, with the possible exception of that flaky hippie Rutherford B. Hayes. But Bush's crowd seems especially adept at bureaucratic warfare, and it has rarely been afraid to launch a preemptive attack. Tomlinson insists that he isn't acting as a henchman for the White House, and that he merely wants what's best for public broadcasting. I'd find that easier to believe if this administration weren't so obsessed in every other context with control and loyalty.

At a time when the president's spokesman has taken to advising reporters on how to do their jobs, the CPB looks less like a guarantee of independence and more like an instrument of discipline. The Republicans command much more of Washington now than they did in Gingrich's era, but these days you're not likely to hear them call for taking public broadcasters off the public tit. If you're wondering why, ask Ben Wattenberg.