PBS: Why I Watch, But Don’t Contribute

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

On September 16, 1962 Edward R. Murrow, who was the greatest TV Journalist and a particular hero of mine http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=murrowedwar, premiered the opening of Public Television on Channel 13 in New York City. You can watch that very short broadcast in this link so you can understand the mission of this station at its beginnings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gr-QxU1Sz0

At the age of 17, I watched Mr. Murrow enthralled as he laid out the defined purpose of this station, which was to provide educational, non-commercial television, that would innovate new programming to educate/inform and amuse its’ listeners. This opening occurred two weeks after the death of my mother. My father (who would die a year later) and I watched this show together, bonded by the sorrow we shared and by the fact that Ed Murrow had been someone whose news shows we three had watched together for a decade. Given that he was a ninth grade dropout, my father was a man of intellectual depth who read Camus, Sartre and was a devotee of avante garde cinema. He passed his tastes on to me. So for us, this was a momentous event, given the inanity that characterized much of commercial TV with its’ intellectual paucity. This beginning initiated an emotional link with me to the concept of public TV that has lasted ever since.

In the years that followed Channel 13 would become an anchoring member of the Public Broadcasting System. I was a dedicated viewer and modest financial contributor via yearly membership. I could go into a litany of the presentations that informed me, moved me and entertained me through the years, but that is not my purpose here. Somewhere along the way from the beginning of non-commercial television until today, I became skeptical about contributing to it, while still availing myself of it’s’ services. I write about why this skepticism developed and why it remains.

One of the investigator/journalists that I most respect is Russ Baker and his blog: http://whowhatwhy.com/ . Recently, I did a guest blog based upon a book Mr. Baker had written: http://jonathanturley.org/2012/03/17/a-real-history-of-the-last-sixty-two-years/#more-46802 . This week I read an article by him titled Will Political Ads Destroy Public Broadcasting’s “Uniqueness”? . Baker states:

“On Thursday, a divided federal appeals court overturned a previous ban on public broadcasting stations running political ads. Well-meaning public-interest outfits such as Free Press quickly condemned the action, and urged the public to bring pressure on those broadcasters not to run the spots.”

 “But here’s the sad truth: With a few notable exceptions, big public broadcasting (let us distinguish the national PBS/NPR from community-based entities) is a lot less educational than it would like us to believe. True, it contains “thought-provoking” material delivered by dulcet-toned broadcasters and a charming, southern-inflected host with lightly tousled hair, and people seemingly disagreeing in the politest of manners. But the content of these broadcasters is just about as influenced by commercial interests and dominant cliques as the more “vulgar” commercial broadcasters.”

Russ Baker was writing about something that I had felt for years, but never discussed with people, because criticizing PBS in many educated circles would seem to be heresy. Wasn’t it those Right Wing Authoritarians who kept shouting that PBS was too liberal? To be critical of PBS, in light of the Right Wing attacks, seems to someone of my political perspective, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Yet I had privately felt for years that much of PBS was little more than an outlet controlled by those interests who would re-make our country into a Corporatocracy. As I watched at the beginning of many a program funded by Corporate sponsorship, or that of foundations like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation and Charles G. Koch Foundation I felt queasy. The corporations are allowed to display tasteful, low key commercials, which befit the status and intellectual level of the general PBS audience. The various foundations get their names mentioned in hushed, stentorian tones, befitting institutions to be viewed as icons. At the end of this article I’ve provided links about the four foundations mentioned. If you check them out I’m sure you will see that they were funded by some of America’s premier capitalists. Their purposes are to promote the idea of a Capitalist (Corporate) America prevailing, as long as it adheres to the principles of free market and small government. Russ Baker continues:

“Public broadcasting, which largely targets an affluent, well-educated audience of liberal and progressive bent, is a powerful tool for shaping perceptions and convincing people to continue working within the system rather than fully appraising the corruption that undergirds that system. A brutally candid investigation of our country’s institutions and political/cultural leaders as they actually function would make affluent liberals much more uncomfortable. They’d have to examine the corporate, legal and academic networks of which they are a contented part. And they’d be forced to see that when liberals get into power, all too many end up serving corporate interests in ways that differ from conservatives more in style and tone than in profound shifts of policy and governance.

Public broadcasting regularly pulls its punches—and has gotten steadily worse in recent years. You can blame attacks from the Right, which periodically threaten to eliminate government support of PBS and NPR. But, in fact, public broadcasting has always been, to some extent, an arm of the establishment.

By creating an aura of thoughtfulness, it has essentially lulled the public into complacency. By its very existence, it has convinced us that dissent is not only welcomed but has a vigorous presence in the American conversation. By having hard-core corporate operatives gently debate tepid reformers, it has given us the facade of open discussion and probing inquiries. Which is why those oil companies, banks, and foundations set up by the very rich are so happy to underwrite all that good taste”.

Baker’s words resonate with me. They encapsulate all I’ve been thinking and feeling for many years regarding PBS programming. While the opening credits on every PBS show throw in the words “and from people like you” after each long announcement about the Corporations and Rich people’s foundations contributing to producing it, those wealthy contributors certainly have more influence on content, than all of the subscriptions paid for by us common folk combined.

PBS even has a website dedicated to Corporate Sponsorship: Corporate Sponsorship Web Site where you can see a list of corporate sponsorship http://www.sgptv.org/sponsors/browse. Among those sponsors are corporations well-known for their “public interest”: ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Pfizer, Siemen’s, BP, Chubb, Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, Ameriquest, McDonald’s and so on. Here is a quote from the press release announcing the initiation of this website in 2004:

“About the Sponsorship Group for Public Television (SGPTV):
The Sponsorship Group for Public Television is a full-service sales, marketing and client services team that secures national corporate sponsors for signature PBS programs. The team represents many of the highest-rated and best-known series on PBS, including American Experience, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Masterpiece Theatre, and Nova. In addition to representing the largest portfolio of prime-time series on public television, SGPTV represents popular PBS children’s shows, such as Arthur, Zoom and Between the Lions, and well-known cooking and do-it-yourself programs such as New Yankee Workshop” and “Victory Garden.”

This in effect is a marketing department for Public Broadcasting. I included the Murrow clip in the beginning, because he said and believed that Educational TV was to be a “non-commercial venture”, with the implication that it wouldn’t be tainted by the sponsor’s interference which pervades commercial television programming. When these commercials began appearing prior to PBS shows marks where my skepticism about PBS began. Afterwards I started watching each show more critically and evaluating what was being presented. William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” aired on PBS in 1971 with the auspices of South Carolina Educational Television http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firing_Line , I felt it was fair at the time since it was balanced by shows like David Susskind’s “Open End” and Dick Cavett off and on. “Firing Line persisted though for enough years to become PBS’ longest running talk show. Buckley used his prodigious vocabulary and patrician manners to dazzle his viewer’s, but often his use of little used verbiage was a cover for the fact that his logic was deficient. His manner was that of a genteel, yet smiling bully. It was the marquee talk show on PBS and it was decidedly a propaganda machine for conservative politics, which dazzled even many liberals in the affluent PBS audience base. I’ve previously written about William F. Buckley, Jr. in this blog post below.  http://jonathanturley.org/2011/12/04/william_f__buckley_jr__1985/#more-42375

The anchor news program on PBS is of course “The PBS NewsHour” which in my opinion is very “centrist” in the sense of using the current news methodology of giving equivalency to opposing political arguments. The best example of “equivalency” would be treating a debate between scientists who believe in evolution, with believers in “Intelligent Design” as a debate between equally valid arguments. Currently 65% of “The PBS NewsHour” is owned by Liberty Media which is owned by a man known for his right wing viewpoint.

“In October 2006, the progressive media criticism group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) accused the NewsHour of lacking balance, diversity, and viewpoints of the general public, in favor of Republican Party and corporate viewpoints. FAIR found that the NewsHour‘s guest list from October 2005 to March 2006 had Republicans outnumbering Democrats 2:1, and people of color accounting for 15% of U.S.-based sources.[19] FAIR also protested in 1995 when Liberty Media purchased a majority of the program, citing Liberty’s majority owner, John Malone, for his “Machiavellian business tactics” and right-wing sentiments.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PBS_NewsHour

The Corporate Sponsorship of “NewsHour” is: ATT, Citibank and BSNF Railways. Its’ foundation sponsor roll is replete with right wing stalwarts like the Bechtel Foundation (mid-East Oil). Here is a full list of sponsor’s from the NewsHour’s website: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/aboutus/funders.html . Other critiques of the NewsHour:

Noam Chomsky criticizes the short span of time that he was allotted when interviewed on the NewsHour in September 1990. Chomsky complains that a short format allows only the repetition of conventional wisdom, not the exploration of ideas. In 1992, radio broadcaster David Barsamian called the NewsHour “stenographers to power.”

Media critic David Barsamian, mentioned above, wrote a book about PBS titled “The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting”. Among the points he mentioned in the book are:

“… virtually since its inception there has been constant political pressure to temper public broadcasting and to control its content. One method has been through “flak,” consistently pressuring public radio and television through the incessant canard that they have a left-wing bias. It started with Nixon in the 1970s. In the 1980s, NPR was accused of being “Radio Managua on the Potomac.”

 “In its pitch to potential advertisers, PBS encourages businesses to: Learn how PBS Sponsorship can help your corporate message stand out from the clutter of commercial advertising-and reach your target audience! Through sponsoring PBS programming such as Talking Money with Jean Chatzky, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Washington Week, you not only build your brand and enhance your marketing, you also become associated with the high public image of PBS.”

 “Corporate advertising poses one set of problems for public broadcasting. The ideological and political climate that informs the content of programs is yet another concern. A mandarin caste of milquetoasts at each station-only a handful of people, and sometimes just one individual-decides what gets on the air. They are acting as gatekeepers, deciding what we will see and hear. Let me give you some examples. In 1993, PBS aired “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power,” a series funded by Paine Webber, a company with petrochemical oil interests. The main analyst of the series was Daniel Merging, a consultant to major oil companies. Almost every expert featured was a defender of the oil industry. That same year, PBS aired a documentary called “James Reston: The Man Millions Read,” a rather flattering profile about the New York Times columnist. The film was funded by and produced in association with the New York Times, Reston‘s long-time employer. The director and producer of the film was Susan Dryfoos, a member of the Sulzburger family, which owns the New York Times, and the daughter of a former Times publisher. Conflict of interest? Fahggeddaboudit.”

“Certainly the issue is not a lack of quality programming. In 1995, an Academy Award-winning documentary short on domestic violence by Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich, “Defending Our Lives,” was rejected at PBS. “Defending Our Lives” was filmed in Framingham Prison for Women in Massachusetts and focused on eight women prisoners who had been battered and beaten by the husbands they eventually killed. One of the producers was a leader of a battered women’s support group, but PBS felt that this gave her “a direct vested interest in the subject matter of the program” -perhaps because she was against domestic violence. PBS added that “programming must be free from the control of parties with a direct self-interest in that content.”

PBS also declined to air a documentary called “The Money Lender$: The World Bank and IMF,” a film by Robert Richter. Why? PBS was concerned that “Even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected.” PBS also turned down “Out at Work,” an excellent film about gays in the workplace that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. The film, produced and directed by Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, was scheduled to be part of the series “Point of View” (“P.O.V.”) before PBS dropped it. One of the subjects of the film is a woman named Cheryl Summerville, who was fired as a cook from a Cracker Barrel restaurant outside Atlanta in 1991 for “failing to comply with normal heterosexual values.” Another subject in the film worked as an electrician at Chrysler.”

That was just some examples that Barsamian’s book discussed. He even included in it a quote from Bill Moyers who has been one of the most reasoned voices on the public airways for many decades: “What is emerging is not public television but government television shaped by politically conscious appointees whose desire to avoid controversy could turn CPB into the Corporation for Public Blindness.” In my opinion PBS, while still occasionally producing the highest quality of television programming, has become the voice of the American Corporate Establishment. It provides enough intellectual content to stimulate the minds of its viewers, who are in general (by PBS’ own assertion) wealthier and better educated than the average American. Then too we see that much of the best programming on PBS was actually created by the British Broadcasting System (BBC). I’ve expressed my belief here in many “guest blogs” and in many comments, that there is a struggle going on in America between those who would have us ruled by elite corporate interests and the other 99% of the American people.

There are some who would disparage the idea that PBS is Corporate tainted, because Conservatives have historically tried to kill it and its member stations, since the inception of educational TV. This is no dichotomy if you realize the value of one of these station licenses to potential private interests. The broadcast rights to WNET in New York, or WGBH in Boston would be worth a large fortune. The ideal situation for elite interests would be to destroy public television, but failing that, co-optation is also beneficial. I will not participate in supporting PBS as long as it remains putatively non-commercial, but realistically a tool of the corporate establishment, though I will continue to watch some of its programming for free with no sense of irony and/or guilt.

While it would be a nice wrap-up to end this piece with ideas on how to re-make PBS into the educational/cultural bastion that it was intended to be, I don’t believe that this is possible. The entire enterprise has become too intertwined with the aims of America’s corporate elite to reform. While it sometimes hits and exceeds the mark of great programming, often its stalwart shows like “The American Experience” take historic, painful moments in our history and overlay them with soothing messages to alleviate the sting that this is our history. Mass protests by viewers are unlikely since it would force many wealthy subscribers into admitting certain truths about our country that would be hard for them to bear, not the least of which is their own complicity. My personal protest, meager as it may be, is to watch those shows with value and refuse to be among the “people like you”. Anathematize me if you will.








Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

74 thoughts on “PBS: Why I Watch, But Don’t Contribute”

  1. The sad part is they do not see it themselves.

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  3. Bob Edwards is a great interviewer. He has Sunday mornings, 10 – 12, on WBEZ (NPR) in Chicago.

  4. Mike, I was thinking more along the line of Genghis Khan.

    I became outdone with NPR when they fired Bob Edwards from his morning show. One of the best interviewers I ever heard. He would get the subject talking and only interject to keep them on topic. I once heard him do a long interview and read later he only spoke 77 words during the interview. Brilliant. He always came across as a kind person as well, but with a solid journalistic background. He may have been hard to work with, and someone from NPR told me contract negotiations with him was a nightmare, but nevertheless, he was a great on-air interviewer. When Bob Edwards left NPR, I quit listening to the morning news show because it was never the same.

    1. I always wondered if they got rid of Edwards due to the demographics (age) of his audience. If so they may have outsmarted themselves. Elders have money, are loyal to products they appreciate and for the next decade or so will be just about the fastest growing portion of the population.

      On the other hand if NPR management thought they were going to transform to something young and trendy maybe they are were just delusional.

    2. OS,
      I felt the same way about Bob Edwards and also stopped listening about then. He was a brilliant interviewer.

      I don’t think it was the demogrsphic, but was the fact the bureaucrats at the network felt he had gotten to big for his breeches. They objected to the fact he became bigger in people’s minds than his program.

  5. PBS… back when Mr. Rogers was on, along with the oldschool version of Sesamie Street and Electric Company (before leftwing nut-job ideologies were peppered in there as propoganda) it was ok. Now there’s too much leftwing manure. We get enough of the leftwing BS on the lamestream media. Then we have NPR, and left leaning PBS. No thanks.

    1. Barney,
      I guess to you anything to the left of Attila The Hun is a commie?

  6. Well, I suppose the thread is dead, but here is what I think, with reference to my earlier posts. I just ran through the channels, and I think PBS could have been some blend of all of these advertiser-supported channels:

    A&E (Arts and Entertainment)
    Food network
    Cartoon channel (for kids)
    Learning Channel
    TV-LAND (very cheap content)
    National Geographic
    Travel Channel
    History Channel

    Here would be an interesting series for PBS: Have all local affiliates produce a segment of “The Native’s Guide To [City] (on a budget!)”, talking about restaurants, sights, history, activities, or whatever, combine them all and make a series.

    All of those channels make a living without being the most-watched channel on TV, several do not have a single top-rated show, but they still sell advertising, pay their employees, and have money left over (profit) for their investors. For PBS, those profit bucks could be rolled back into better production values and funding one-shots (documentaries or movies like the Muppet Show revival, a Sherlock Holmes movie, a Masterpiece Theater production, a command orchestral or operatic recital, etc).

    If PBS doesn’t get over themselves and start advertising, I think they will become ever more captured and beholden to their corporate funders, and ever more irrelevant to America, until the day they die with a whimper, they will close up shop and find that nobody really cares.

  7. @Michael Murry: Far from considering this awareness “evil,” I consider it vital.

    My point was that such knowledge is a tool, and tools (both intellectual tools like geometry and physical tools tools like hammers) are not inherently either evil or good, they can be used for either. They are like super-powers in the comic book world, those with the gift can become heroes, villains, or something in-between (like the Greek gods).

    Luntz chose evil.

    Michael says: The evil comes about when we do not pay attention to the ways in which “the persuaders” seek to influence us without our knowledge or consent.

    I disagree completely, this is blaming the victim, and forcing upon them a new responsibility created solely by somebody else’s intent to commit a fraud, and is thus immoral.

    Purely to illustrate the point, let us suppose this crime is not just trickery to steal votes and campaign contributions, but burglary. If a burglar is in my mother’s neighborhood stealing jewelry, is it my mother’s fault if she gets burglarized because she accidentally left the door to the garden unlocked, or forgot she left the upstairs studio window wide open? (and my forgetful mother, living alone, has done both of those things for days on end, although they haven’t resulted in burglaries).

    No, the cops would not get to blame her for not taking precautions. The presence of evil in the world does not make US evil for failing to take precautions against it.

    It is immoral to blame the victim. The evil originates with a persuader that crosses the line between striving to make a communication compellingly clear, and striving to obfuscation, trickery, and lies in order to get their way.

    Selling somebody on a product is not inherently bad, in fact the product might make them happy, more productive, more profitable, or safer. A product can do some good in the world, and clear, honest communications can help get it out there to do more good.

    Metaphorically speaking, the hammer is not evil, the person that wields it may be; and the victim of a hammer attack is not to blame for failing to wear a suit of armor.

  8. “It’s been said a million times at this point, but Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have more courage and honesty than 2/3 of the so-called “liberal” Democratic establishment. They’re not afraid of David Koch’s or Jamie Dimon’s cash, and they’re not afraid of not getting invited to cool cocktail parties.

    And just for the record, let the conspiracy types who claim that our press cowardice is all the result of corporate media ownership note: Viacom runs Comedy Central, and General Electric Comcast owns MSNBC. Maddow, Stewart and Colbert feel fairly free to do their thing, anyway. There may be nefarious control to a certain extent, but by and large the rest of the traditional press don’t get off so lightly. They’re simply cowards, “respectable” straight-laced cardboard caricatures humbled at every turn by the brilliance and courage of a couple of comedians and a comparatively neophyte unabashed lesbian TV personality on the 3rd most watched cable news channel.

    That should embarrass them. But I guess it doesn’t.” Digby

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