A Rumble on Sesame Street

The politics of 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 the man said those words, the Republicans certainly embraced the thought.

In 1992, after conservative senators raised a stink about some programs on the leftist Pacifica radio network, Congress attached its subsidy for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to a rule reiterating the need for "objectivity and balance." In the ensuing decade, despite the short-lived Gingrich proposal, subsidies to the CPB actually increased. Meanwhile, 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. So did Peggy Noonan.

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 he may 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, last seen working as a communications officer at the Bush White House. When two Democratic congressmen protested all this, they called Tomlinson "a source of political interference into public broadcasting."

That he is. But the deeper source of interference is public broadcasting itself. Government money has always come with political strings.

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 Public Radio and Television in America (1996), Douglass Cater's basement office in the White House was the "command center" for ensuring "the Commission was made up of both dependable members of the Cambridge/Washington axis and close personal and political associates of President Johnson."

One result was an eastern liberal slant that repelled the next president, Richard Nixon, who tried to eliminate virtually all the network's political programs. He lost that battle, but he did pass a measure giving the CPB more leverage over programming.

Under Reagan, 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 "launched into a strict ideological attack, meant to bring pressure on NPR to change its coverage….What 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."

Small wonder that proposals to privatize the CPB 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 good will of Congress.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the GOP's present political leanings, today's Republican reformers are taking their cues not from the private sector but from the federal foreign policy bureaucracy. Ken Tomlinson is not the first Voice of America veteran to take a post in public broadcasting, but he is the first person simultaneously to chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees operations such as the Voice of America and Radio Marti.

Close up, the CPB looks less like a guarantee of independence and more like an instrument of discipline. Republicans will sometimes call for taking public broadcasters off the public tit, but you shouldn't expect them to follow through and do it. If you're wondering why, ask Ben Wattenberg.

A longer version of this article is here.