It's not the first time that a debate inside the Beltway misses the mark by a mile. But the controversy raging in Washington over public broadcasting is so myopic that even cutting-edge Lasik surgery couldn't produce a clear vision of what is needed.
As outlined in The Post on July 17, public broadcasting has come under renewed attack by conservatives who see liberal bias in news and discussion programs on the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and Public Radio International. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, went so far as to secretly hire consultants last year to analyze the political ideology of guests on four PBS and NPR shows, including one of my programs, a move under investigation by the CPB's inspector general.
Tomlinson needn't have spent the more than $14,000 in taxpayer money. A couple of unpaid interns using TiVo (now about $99 after rebate) could have enlightened both the chairman and Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, who described me in these pages as "center-left."
To set the record straight: The first political guest booked on my show was Newt Gingrich, hardly a flaming liberal. In the 18 months since then, I've spoken with at least 50 members of Congress from the GOP side of the aisle, not to mention Ken Mehlman, Ed Gillespie and Mark Racicot, the current and former chairs of the Republican National Committee. Our coverage of last year's Democratic and Republican national conventions featured guests ranging from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Ann Coulter, from Howard Dean to Bob Barr.
As for my personal views, I was invited to appear on ABC's "Nightline" during the presidential campaign after publicly lambasting the Democratic Party for taking African Americans for granted (a quote deemed White House-friendly and later repeated by a number of Republican politicians).
Having made that point, however, let me say that's all beside the point. Americans have grown profoundly weary of what Jon Stewart brilliantly called the "partisan hackery" on countless public affairs programs on cable and broadcast television. The model of a Democrat and a Republican screaming at each other, egged on by one or two equally obnoxious hosts, is a cliche whose time has come and, many hope, will soon be gone.
Yet that seems to be what Tomlinson and critics on Capitol Hill are aiming for: an ideologically balanced, tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth political debate on every public broadcasting program. It is a scenario that could leave us all blind, toothless and eager to hurl the nearest heavy object at our flat-screen TVs and surround-sound radios.
One of the primary goals of public broadcasting, as described in NPR's 1970 mission statement, is to serve an alternative community of viewers and listeners, such as "urban areas with sizable non-white audiences, student groups [and] groups with distinct lifestyles and interests, not now served by electronic media."
That was the challenge, and in large part, public broadcasting has failed miserably.
As proud as I am of my efforts to foster noncombative, civil conversation on my radio and TV programs as an antidote to the left-vs.-right ranting so prevalent elsewhere, I am even more gratified by the reaction to my attempts to bring new voices and perspectives to public broadcasting. For too long there have been certain questions that were not asked, certain people who were not profiled and certain issues that were not raised.
While Washington talks about ideological balance, Americans hunger to see programming that reflects their experience and inspires their lives. It's been nearly four decades since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act and Congress chartered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the country has become infinitely more diverse and multicultural during that time.
So why isn't the debate over how public broadcasting can become more inclusive of folk of different ages and national origins, of various ethnic groups, faiths and cultures -- over how it can be used to introduce Americans to new ideas, and to each other?
I know that's an incendiary question these days. But if the core of our discussion on the future of public broadcasting is about shifting content in one direction or the other on the political spectrum, the medium is doomed to fiscal and intellectual bankruptcy.
In June, the House voted to restore $100 million in funds for the CPB. I'm thankful for those who felt the heat or saw the light. Now that public broadcasting has a new lease on life, it's time to overcome our Fear Factor, our reluctance to face the real issues.
At a time when much of American programming consists of competitions to walk over hot lava while eating live worms, a special effort must be made to embrace, grow and reward intelligent and inclusive conversation. If not, we deserve what we get.
Tavis Smiley is host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" from PRI.