Friday, July 29, 2005

Biased information labor at PBS?

Just can't let this one go by without a short comment, for the benefit of any students out there who might be reading this.

An editorial this week over at Fox News from David Boaz, executive vice president of the avowedly libertarian Cato Institute, purported to list the "Top Ten Reasons to Privatize Public Broadcasting". I don't have the time or interest to try to refute all of his allegations -- some are grounded in important debates over the direction of public broadcasting and don't deserve to be dismissed out of hand, and not all of the allegations are of equal value or import to the debate -- but I wanted to point out two in particular, which strike me as comically contradictory:

7. Public broadcasting has a liberal bias. The reason the Republicans are poking around in PBS’s business is that they’re tired of taxpayer-funded radio and television networks being used to campaign against Republican administrations and their policies. Does public broadcasting have a liberal bias? Is the Pope Catholic? I have the luxury of choosing from two NPR stations. On Wednesday evening, June 29, a Robert Reich (search) commentary came on. I switched to the other station, which was broadcasting a Daniel Schorr (search) commentary. That's not just liberal bias, it's a liberal roadblock.


1. The separation of news and state. We wouldn’t want the federal government to publish a national newspaper. Why should we have a government television network and a government radio network? If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that Americans watch. When government brings us the news—with all the inevitable bias and spin—the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. It’s time for that to stop.

So for the head of the Cato think tank, a group which is funded by partisan interests and provides research and rhetoric to those partisan interests, the problem with PBS is "liberal bias." OK, I understand they don't want taxpayer dollars promoting bias one way or another. I'll forget for a moment the fact that it was the FCC under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s which let the former "Fairness Doctrine," a regulatory principle over the privatized airwaves that demanded a sense of "balance" in news reporting, die a lonely death (allowing the meteoric rise of "right-wing talk radio," among other things). And I will forgive the "Is the Pope Catholic?" line of "common sense" reasoning, even though the Cato institute, as a supposedly research-based think tank, should be able to supply actual research to back up its claims -- I understand this is an editorial on Fox, meant to be snappy, not authoritative. But if PBS is so liberal, then how can it possibly be an outlet for government propaganda, as Boaz indicates in his number one reason to privatize PBS? (Hasn't Boaz been paying attention to the recent revelations that in fact it has been the Bush Administration who has been using taxpayer dollars to pay media consultants to support its policies on the air, and to produce "Video News Releases" sent to local television news programs who pass this propaganda off as independent reporting?) In fact, if two out of the three branches of federal government are now controlled by the economic and social conservative side of the political spectrum (with a new Supreme Court justice likely tipping the balance of the third branch as well), might we not want a watchdog voice to represent a more moderate (which they see as "liberal") set of views?

I would like to encourage media and information students of mine to check out the Fox editorial, and then to follow up some other sources as well, such as Salon reporter Eric Boehlert's nice article on the current attack on PBS (posted at and a 1999 Vassar College study of actual persons appearing on PBS news and public interest programs (posted at which showed that the dominant voice is not "liberal," but corporate. Not only is PBS not as "liberal" as the Cato institute -- representing the epitome of economic conservatism and, as libertarians, often social liberalism! -- would have Fox viewers believe, but PBS is, in a very real sense, already privatized: both dependent for corporate funding to produce and screen much of its programming, and providing a showcase for corporate America pundits in its nightly news just as every other professional national news service tends to do.

Yet I still think we need PBS, and instead of pointing to as the canonical argument for why we do (although I still think this is a very good example and argument) I'll point to another informational resource that is unique in America -- and around the world -- to PBS alone, an unparalleled source of investigative, documentary filmmaking AND a great example of how, as a publicly-based endeavor, that information is able to be enhanced and preserved over the new media of the global Internet. I'm talking about Frontline, and if you've never seen this program or visited this web site, please do it now and discover just what journalism COULD become in an environment free of corporate pressures for avoiding any and all least-common-demoninator objections of affluent and/or targeted consumers.

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