Fairness in the Balance

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

To its conservative critics, public broadcasting is the little liberal idea that won't go away. First Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, then Ronald Reagan in the early '80s, then Newt Gingrich a decade ago tried to reduce substantially or eliminate federal funding of public broadcasting. All three failed.

So the recent tempest over the issue -- Republican-led allegations of biased news reporting, halting efforts to cut federal funds, etc. -- may look to veteran broadcasters like a rerun of a rerun of a rerun. Considering that the federal government got into subsidizing Big Bird and "Masterpiece Theatre" only 38 years ago, public broadcasting has traveled a much-potholed road in Washington.

What is it about National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service et al. that so irks conservatives now? The answer seems to be twofold, reflecting both a general ideological aversion (using taxpayer money to support radio and TV shows) and a specific set of complaints about the alleged leftward tilt of programs hosted by the likes of Bill Moyers and Tavis Smiley.

Just ask Paul Gigot, the conservative editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, who was until recently a regular commentator on PBS's stolid "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Gigot charges that a "center-left" perspective pervades public broadcasting's ostensibly nonpartisan news discussion programs.

"I haven't done a study of this, but over the years, my perception is that 'Frontline' has" taken this viewpoint, says Gigot. "The conventional wisdom of the reporters on 'Washington Week' is center-left. [PBS talk-show host] Tavis Smiley is a center-left figure, too."

State and local government support of noncommercial broadcasting has its roots in the 1920s, at the start of the radio industry. But the practice reached its official flowering in Washington in 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act to foster the development of "educational radio and TV," as it was then known. That year, Congress chartered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and gave it $5 million to hand out to public radio and TV stations. This year, the federal contribution is $387 million, or approximately 15 percent of all the money raised by public broadcasters.

Although the broadcasters say they depend on Washington's help to pay their bills (and to survive, in the case of smaller, rural stations), some critics have never reconciled themselves to the idea of paying for public radio and TV programs -- of any ideological stripe -- with government money.

Supporting opera telecasts or "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" might have made sense in a three-network world, they say, but not in a 500-channel one that creates plenty of shows equivalent to those once available only on "educational TV" -- children's programs like "Sesame Street," entertainment fare like "Antiques Roadshow," the high-minded documentaries of "Frontline" and "Nova," and news and public-affairs shows like "NewsHour" and "Washington Week."

At a time of massive government budget deficits, amid tight spending on social programs of all kinds, some Republicans assert that Washington's support of public broadcasting is expendable.

"Not that I dislike public television," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House subcommittee that subsidizes public broadcasting, after the House voted last month to cut some public broadcasting funds. But, he added, "we have limited amounts of money."

What's more, conservatives like to say, those federal funds are subsidizing a system that disproportionately serves the tastes and interests of relatively affluent audiences. "With the obvious exception of 'Sesame Street,' the target audience for PBS isn't remotely poor. It's the well-to-do," conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote in a column this month. "Yes, some poor folks enjoy symphonies and entire shows dedicated to shiitake mushrooms and fennel. . . . But, come on, who're we kidding?"

This may be true of some PBS programs -- Joe Six-Pack isn't likely to TiVo the latest British costume drama -- but not all. In testimony before the Senate last week, PBS President Pat Mitchell noted that its programs draw a weekly audience of some 70 million people. This viewership looks a lot like the nation as a whole, according to Nielsen Media Research.

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