In an effort to broaden (and depersonalize) the terms of the present
discussion, I would like to try and clarify, briefly, some of the issues
that are at stake.
1) The current round of Congressional hearings, aimed at defunding CPB,
NEA, NEH, etc., is not some aberrant blip on the legislative horizon; some
sporadic turbulence in the otherwise tranquil world of ideological
co-existence. Nor is it really about finding a better way to balance the
Federal budget. Rather, it is about re-shaping the contours of cultural
discourse and subsuming the "production" of culture within the domain of
the private sector.
2) On the surface, the primary concepts that drives these assaults on the
above institutions are the notions that Federal funding is either redundant
or extraneous (in the case of CPB) or ideologically tainted (the NEA and
NEH). In both cases, sufficient cause to justify the withdrawal of
3) On the whole, the terms of the debate (in the case of CPB) have been
entirely predictable. One side argues for privatization, while the other
(meekly enough) reasserts its value and importance.
4) From the standpoint of the "privatizers", CPB represents a self-serving,
elitist institution garnishing the fruits of government largesse at the
taxpayer's expense. CPB shoots its best shot and responds by focusing on
the broad demographics of its children's programming. Within the rather
fixed confines of the present debate there is little room for a thorough
examination of the underlying issues NOR is there any real desire (on
either side) to examine the broader (systemic) issues that are really at
5) Since the early 70's the shape and content of public television
programming has been effected by a host of political factors. The net
result of this external coercion has been the diluting of the original
objectives of public television as they were envisioned in the Carnegie
Commission Report of 1967. Two events in this process are worth mentioning:
1- the purging of 'liberal' elements on the CPB board by President Nixon in
1972, and 2 - a reconfiguration of the guidelines pertaining to the
'identification' of corporate underwriters: the 1984 FCC ruling that
permitted the "soft" commercials now found on most PBS programs.
6) Not surprisingly, the continuous politicization of the CPB funding
process has the effect of massaging the content of public television and
moving the system closer to the commercial arena. This being the case, it
is not surprising, that the distinctive edge of public television, has
grown decidedly duller over the years. Increasingly, as long as CPB
funding is buffeted by the winds of Congressional and Presidential storms,
we will be faced with a public television system (certainly on the national
level) without any clear purpose nor any sense of constituency. At best
public television will be simply one of many twinkling little stars on the
Well then, given the above, one could easily come to the conclusion that
public television (as it currently exists) has outgrown the need of Federal
support. This premise would be legitimate ONLY if you are willing to ignore
the original mandates that motivated the creation of a public television
system (not simply in the Carnegie Commission Report but also the many
subsequent studies that have analyzed public television).
The problem with the current debate is that it polarizes both sides around
positions that are transparently self-serving and untenable. Both sides
side-step the historical roots of the problem (as Wally Bowen has so ably
pointed out) and present solutions that do little more than rationalize
and re-affirm their own positions. And yes, the waters have been strewn
with so many red-herrings that one spends more time gasping for air than
The situation is truly paradoxical. The patient is afflicted with a host of
diseases threatening, eating away the key organs. The life-support systems
keep pumping away. The examining room is filled with specialists and
experts. Pronouncements regarding the health of the patient seem both
deliberate and precise. "Do we pull the plug now, or three years from now."
Either way, the patient is a shadow of its former self and, not so
strangely, most observers are reluctant to admit to the complicated nature
of this illness.
Throughout this society, "denial" manifests itself in many spheres, in many
guises. I, like many others, believe in the importance of public television
and not because of the merits of any one particular program but rather
because the concept, the idea, of a noncommercial broadcast system is an
essential element in a society where there is a broad and informed social
discourse within the public sphere. But the promise of public television
will hardly bare fruit, let alone survive, if we keeping denying and
neglecting the serious, historically ingrained, issues that are at stake.
Issues that continue to pile up. Issues not simply about program content,
station management or relations with independent producers, but issues that
effect the "the public" in public television.
What this means is that saving public broadcasting is not simply about
saving the funding (as critical as that is) but continuing to define and
spell out the objectives of a public broadcasting system.
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