Notes & Comments March 2006
Business as usual at CPB
What’s wrong with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
Not that the BBC has a monopoly on political correctness. Consider the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the grant-making, quasi-governmental agency that distributes some $400 million of taxpayer money to PBS, NPR, and other entities and individuals in order (so they say) to raise the level of what we see on television and listen to on the radio. CPB is also, and not incidentally, in business to broaden the spectrum of legitimate opinion expressed over the airwaves.
Has it done so? Is public television and radio really better than standard network fare? Probably. Does it reflect a broad range of political opinion? Or is it, when it comes to politics and cultural issues, devoted mostly to promulgating left-liberal pieties? Ever since CPB was launched, in the Johnson years, conservatives have complained about the left-wing bias of CPB and its clients. As one left-leaning politician explained, “You have Fox News and talk radio, we have NPR and PBS.” What he didn’t say was that his side also had The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, most network news shows, the universities, Hollywood, and most organs of elite cultural opinion. Nor did he point out that CPB and its clients, being publicly funded, ought also to provide a place at the table for creditable opinion that dissented from the reigning left-wing orthodoxy.
There was a moment, a couple of years ago, when that seemed about to happen. Three years ago, the distinguished independent film producer Michael Pack joined CPB as head of television programming. Part of Mr. Pack’s task was to broaden the menu of CPB fare, bringing conservative voices to a conversation hitherto overwhelmingly dominated by the Left. Such initiatives were not looked kindly upon by the Left. “Big Bird Flies Right”: the title of Ken Auletta’s June 2004 essay in The New Yorker captured the animus, even if the article itself provided little if any evidence that CPB or its clients were in fact turning right. The departure of Kenneth Tomlinson as chairman of CPB last Spring signaled the end of that exercise in diversity. The new rule was to be the old rule: no conservatives need apply. CPB’s new President, Patricia Harrison, is a Republican, but she saw the writing on the wall and soon eased Mr. Pack out of his job by forcing him to choose between staying on and forfeiting a substantial grant that he had won before joining CPB. Also eased out (his consulting contract was not renewed) was James Denton, who among other things oversaw a new $20 million program called “America at a Crossroads,” which provided funding for twenty hour-long films examining various aspects of America’s role in the world in the aftermath of 9/11.
The films, which are scheduled to begin airing in the Spring of 2007, promise to bring something to the public that has been sorely missing. Many of the films are clearly from a left-liberal point of view; what’s surprising is that more than one or two tell a different side of the story. Well, “America at a Crossroads” is a done deal. But nothing of that breadth is likely to be forthcoming from CPB. Ms. Harrison, we’re told, is fond of Churchill memorabilia and is fond of quoting the old warrior. But it seems sadly fitting that when it came time for annual gifts to CPB employees, Ms. Harrison chose to distribute umbrellas. An appropriate emblem, we thought, for someone who wished to avoid controversy and reinforce that status quo ante.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 7, on page 2
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