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A PBS We Deserve

The American right and the American left are bashing PBS. This has become such a regular sport that there are some who may have simply stopped taking the threat to PBS seriously. Others, particularly those in the public broadcasting community, may take this as a sign that public broadcasting in the U.S. is on the right path; that is, if the right and the left are unhappy, PBS must be in the sensible middle. Both of these views are wishful thinking.

PBS President Pat Mitchell’s flip-flop and ultimate decision not to broadcast an episode of the children’s program “Postcards from Buster” about maple syrup because of the incidental involvement of a lesbian couple is a clear sign of a system in trouble. There are others who bemoan the loss of Bill Moyers and the promotion of Tucker Carlson at PBS. But the problems of public broadcasting are much more fundamental than either Buster or Tucker.

The value of public broadcasting to our society is important enough for us to understand these problems and work to solve them. Why is public broadcasting valuable? Right-wing columnist George Will argues that public broadcasting is unnecessary given the Discovery Channel, the Cartoon Network and all the other viewing choices available to Americans. However, even the most superficial examination of the content of these choices suggests that they are no real alternative to “American Experience” or “Sesame Street,” and there is nothing in the same league as NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

But let’s dig a little deeper.

As I have argued in a previous column, the interests of private corporations dominate communications in the United States. No matter how much we might hope they will act in the public interest, commercial broadcasters are not in business to inform the public, they are in business to sell space to advertisers and make a profit. And no matter how much we might hope they will be socially responsible, we do not reward them for being socially responsible. U.S. consumers and investors tend to prefer companies focused on the bottom line. But we need something more in a democracy.

To some extent, public broadcasting in the U.S. has the ability to ignore the demands of profit and the preferences of advertisers and provide us with that something more. If the measure is civic discourse, public broadcasting is far and away more valuable than commercial broadcasting.

Whether they are conservative or liberal, those Americans who rely on public broadcasting are better informed about important issues facing the nation than Americans who rely on commercial broadcasting. Here is one example: There is no public discussion more important than whether to go to war. There is no greater failure than the distortion of that discussion by commercial American media. A series of studies conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland demonstrate widespread misperception about the reasons for war against Iraq. It may be useful to quote PIPA at length here:

The extent of Americans’ misperceptions vary [sic] significantly depending on their source of news. Those who receive most of their news from Fox News are more likely than average to have misperceptions. Those who receive most of their news from NPR or PBS are less likely to have misperceptions. These variations cannot be explained as a result of differences in the demographic characteristics of each audience, because these variations can also be found when comparing the demographic subgroups of each audience.

While Fox may have been the leading cause of public confusion about the reasons for war in Iraq, the other commercial networks are not far behind. It is important to note that even among conservatives, support for the war in Iraq drops when the level of misperception drops. Support for the war was tied not only to what the president and his lieutenants told us; it was tied to how and what the media reported.

There were tremendous commercial pressures on the media to join in the jingoism leading up to the war in Iraq. This jingoism led to public support for the war. Public broadcasting is valuable precisely because its structure allows it to ignore the pressures Fox, CNN, CBS and all the other commercial operations must respond to.

PBS faces other pressures.

Despite support from Republicans like Senators John McCain and Ted Stevens, public broadcasting has been consistently attacked by the radical right. As a result of this pressure from the political right, the federal legislation authorizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting expired in 1996 and has not been renewed.

Only five years ago there was talk of establishing a trust fund for public broadcasting to alleviate its dependency on a fickle Congress, but today the Bush administration not only declines to request advance funding but seeks a $10 million giveback (rescission) from the 2006 appropriation.

The U.S. spends less money per taxpayer on public broadcasting than any other industrial nation. The Canadian government provides 66 percent of the expenses of public service broadcasting. The British pay for roughly 95 percent of the budget of the British Broadcasting Corporation. U.S. taxpayers provide roughly 15 percent of the budget of public broadcasting.

Not only does PBS get about as much from the corporate community as it gets from the federal government, but it increasingly mirrors corporate media. This can be seen in the underwriting announcements that look more and more like advertisements. This can also be seen in the tangled web of corporate relations behind many PBS programs. For example, the PBS flagship news program “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which is owned by Liberty Media. Liberty Media also owns 50 percent of Discovery. And one of the largest investors in Liberty Media is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

PBS should respond to public pressure from the right and the left. Public broadcasting stations should be accountable to the viewers they are licensed to serve. Ideally, PBS should present a diversity of views and a picture of America undistorted by commercialism or political bias. But public broadcasting cannot continue to provide an alternative to commercial broadcasting if its funding is tied to both the political whims of Congress and corporate America.

Our democracy requires a public broadcasting service commensurate with American values of free expression and democratic discourse. And we must be willing to pay for it.

Mark Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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