Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Nonstop Riverdance, anyone?

There's a reason why invading armies seize the TV and radio stations first. And the Bush Administration practically has its tanks lined up with turrets trained on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Washington parent of PBS and NPR.

"The more compelling our journalism, the angrier became the radical right of the Republican Party," said Bill Moyers, former host of PBS' "Now" news show, at a media conference here in St. Louis last week.

Conservatives have hated public broadcasting for decades now; President Nixon was a sworn enemy and tried to co-opt it as a White House mouthpiece. Their complaints have been the usual whiny rant of media bias in a leftward direction. The American Spectator, known by all as a beacon of fair, balanced reportage, refers to PBS as "a government subsidy for obnoxious, deep-pocketed progressives and a jobs program for liberal journalists." Most of all, right-wingers can't stand that NPR and PBS are widely popular, and that polls show that more Americans trust them than anything the conservatives have come up with yet.

The issue has simmered for years but has just about boiled over with revelations that CPB's newly appointed chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, hired a consultant to play ideological bean counter and tally up the number of liberal versus conservative guests on PBS news and talk shows. This comes despite CPB's chartered mandate to shield PBS and NPR from political influence. Tomlinson has also axed the Friday-night news show "Now" from an hour to 30 minutes and has added conservative programing, including commentary by bowtied prepster Tucker Carlson and a panel of rather frightening Wall Street Journal editorialists led by Paul Gigot.

So are PBS and NPR left-leaning? For this liberal to deny it would be transparently dishonest. I still argue that "The News Hour" with Jim Lehrer is perhaps the fairest and most-balanced news show you will find anywhere. But look at "Now" on PBS. My wife and I laughingly refer to it as the "Angry Liberal Show" - but only in the most admiring way. Likewise, it's probably no accident that we liberals love "Frontline" and "Wide Angle." NPR seems somewhat more balanced than PBS, but still the leftward tilt certainly shows sometimes. So there, I admit it.

My question is this: Do we really want President Bush and his ideological lackeys ruling on journalistic ethics for the rest of us? I mean, here's a White House that was cranking out fake news releases for use on mainstream news broadcasts. Not only that, but these guys were actually paying at least tens of thousands of dollars to pundits to act as shills for the latest Bushian initiatives. Then there's the crumbling foundation of lies and dishonesty on which they built this never-ending war in Iraq. Now this same administration has appointed itself the arbitor of media fairness.

And look at liberal bias compared with conservative bias. "Now," while not necessarily granting equal time, at lesat has sought to give some airtime to conservative voices like Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. I'm yet to see Gigot invite anyone who comes anywhere near approaching the political left. Furthermore, shows like "Now" and "Frontline" rely on a great deal of reporting and hard work. They carefully construct their arguments and back them up with a lot of compelling facts. The right-wing media so far has offered little more than unfiltered punditry and mess of hot air.

For years I've agreed with conservatives who have sought to end government funding of PBS and NPR. Newt Gingrich sure tried, and I'm sorry he didn't get his wish. It would have somewhat dulled the tantrum and allowed for a truly independent alternative news source. Instead, I believe the Bush Administration plans to do something worse, and that is to transform it PBS and NPR something worthless and silly. Oh, I don't mean a right-wing propaganda mouthpiece, although I'm sure it's been considered, but more like a benign distributor of inoffensive, yet mediocre, entertainment.

If you like all those crowd pleasers like "Riverdance," Suzy Orman and "Antiques Roadshow," you'll love the new face of PBS; it'll be like a never-ending pledge week. If you've ever visited one of those unfortunate cities where public radio offers little more than a mind-numbing stream of canned classical Muzak, then you've heard the future sound of NPR.

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