It was only a couple of decades ago that the federal government, which can barely balance a budget, required broadcasters to present balanced and fair coverage of controversial issues. This policy, codified by Federal Communications Commission as the Fairness Doctrine, obliged broadcast journalists to recruit opposing viewpoints to lend Zenlike editorial balance to their pieces or face the loss of their licenses.
Besides giving broadcasters fits, the policy mostly deterred radio and TV from covering controversial subjects lest they be accused of being unfair. The airwaves finally broke free from FCC-ordered balance in 1987, when a federal court struck down the Fairness Doctrine as overreaching by the FCC and President Ronald Reagan vetoed an attempt by Congress to enshrine the doctrine in law. The great noise and debate that boils off the airwaves today owes everything to Reagan’s principled stand to extend fundamental First Amendment rights to broadcasters.
While Reagan rescued commercial broadcasters from the censoring ways of the Fairness Doctrine, its spirit lives on under a different name at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB is the private, nonprofit corporation that Congress established in 1967 to bankroll PBS and its member stations, public radio, and online media. The CPB charter mirrors the language of the Fairness Doctrine, stipulating that the corporation adhere to “objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”
The new CPB chairman, Republican Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, invokes the “objectivity and balance” clause to demand that PBS abandon what he considers to be its liberal line. Tomlinson’s crusade, documented in a Page One story in yesterday’s (May 2) New York Times, includes the hiring of two CPB ombudsmen to inspect public television and radio content for bias. The Times says he’s put in the fix for a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee to take the recently vacated slot as CPB president and CEO. Tomlinson also helped raise funds for The Journal Editorial Report, the leaden public-affairs program produced in conjunction with the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page, and has implored public stations to air it. Tomlinson cracked the CPB “objectivity and balance” whip in December 2003 with a letter to the head of PBS stating that “Now With Bill Moyers does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting.” (Moyers has since left the program, which has a new host.)
Tomlinson was right about Now, which Moyers used to parade his liberal hobbyhorses. But, as the Times pointed out, by one measure Moyers’ show was more evenhanded than The Journal Editorial Report, which Tomlinson nurtured and promoted. Now under Moyers polled conservatives for their views, while the Editorial Report mostly reiterates the Wall Street Journal editorial-page line. Yet editorial “balance” is not what either show needs—both benefit from looking at current events through ideological lenses. I’d rather watch a Miele soak cycle than view either program sanitized to CPB charter standards.
Left-wing activists fear that Tomlinson’s meddling in CPB affairs will result in a media filibuster by the conservative majority. The activists want “the people” and “the local stations” to decide public broadcasting’s future, not top-down partisans. Fears of a politicized CPB were first voiced not by the left but by President Richard Nixon. According to Laurence Jarvik’s PBS: Behind the Screen, in the early 1970s Nixon rumbled with the fledgling CPB because he thought the Ford Foundation liberals behind the nascent public broadcasting movement—the top-down partisans of their time—would commandeer the organization and use it against his administration. For that reason, Nixon sought a ban on all funding of news, analysis, documentaries, or anything that smacked of public-affairs programming. Nixon wanted the Ford Foundation Democrats cut out of the equation and public broadcasting limited to cultural and educational programming.
Nixon ultimately lost to the Democrats who controlled Capitol Hill, and news and public affairs took root in public broadcasting. But sitting on the hot plate in hell that he calls home, Nixon must be having an ironic laugh at CPB’s rightward drift in the name of “objectivity and balance.” You can hear his ghost cackling over PBS’s politically motivated decision to un-distribute a Postcards From Buster episode in which the cartoon rabbit visited some Vermont lesbian moms. With today’s Republican majority digging in, you can bet that Nixon would be a partisan of government-supported public broadcasting if still kicking. Modern conservatives like Nixon and Bush don’t like to cut big government, they like to “conserve” it and refashion it to their end: A political spoil like public broadcasting is too valuable a weapon to surrender to ideology.
The best remedy for this week’s public broadcasting crisis isn’t the dismantling of the “objectivity and balance” firewall but the abolishment of the CPB itself. Bureaucracies inevitably conform to the wishes of the ruling party, and as much as CPB would like to rise above politics, every federal appropriation comes laden with political baggage. No government—Republican, Democrat, or Socialist—will ever surrender control over media money it disburses.
If media activists were serious about public broadcaster independence, they’d take this week’s news as a cue to wean public television and radio from the federal government teat. CPB provided 15.3 percent of the $2.3 billion spent by public broadcasters in 2002, with 26 percent coming from station members “like you,” 22.8 percent from businesses and foundations, and the remainder mostly from state and local governments and colleges and universities.
Although the nation’s 1,000-plus public broadcasters are cash poor, they are resource rich, controlling as they do a honking chunk of valuable radio spectrum. If Congress allowed individual public broadcasters to “privatize and dezone” their slices of the spectrum, as Peter Huber puts it in his book Law and Disorder in Cyberspace, they could raise billions for permanent endowments by selling those frequencies to other communications companies (including cell-phone firms or other data services).
In the Washington, D.C., market, for example, the three redundant public television stations—WMPT, WETA, and WHUT—could combine into one superstation funded by the sale of the other two frequencies. (As broadcasters make the mandated transition to digital television later this decade, the Washington public superstation could sell its remaining analog frequency and migrate to its digital slot.) Where public stations don’t overlap, they could sell their frequencies and arrange carriage on existing cable television systems, satellite systems, and telco TV systems, or port themselves over to the Web. A consortium of superstations, flush with cash, could stop airing endless reruns of Arthur and Clifford the Big Red Dog. They could even dispatch Buster to visit devil-worshipping left-handed foot fetishists if they wanted to and there would be nothing the Republicans could do about it. (The same sell-the-bandwidth principle could be applied to the public stations that air NPR, too.)
For the longest time, calling for the defunding of public broadcasting was a Republican pastime. Now that the GOP rules public broadcasters, who will be the first Democrat brave enough to call for the end of PBS and NPR as we know them?
Disclosure: Slate partners with NPR’s Day to Day, which is hosted by a suave guy, and from time to time I contribute to the program. NPR doesn’t pay me for my services, but if anybody from the network is reading this I have some barely used spectrum I’d like to sell them. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Correction, May 3:The original version of this article mistakenly referred to a Washington public TV station on the VHF frequency. All three Washington area public TV stations are UHF. The story has been changed to correct the error.