PBS: Why I Watch But Don’t Contribute: Part Deux

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

432px-PBS_1971_id.svgAbout a year ago I wrote a guest blog titled: PBS: Why I Watch But Don’t Contribute. In it I wrote about the history of PBS and of its’ seminal station WNET Channel 13 in New York. Through the years I’ve been privileged to watch some wonderful television on PBS from great plays to superb documentaries. Much of what PBS and channel 13 supplied to me was culture that was somewhat inaccessible from any other venue. What was so new and novel about the Public Television movement was that it was commercial free and so could greater explore subjects that were verboten in prime time commercial television. It also showed Americans the great programs being produced by the PBS analogue in Great Britain, the BBC. Far from being the “vast wasteland” of commercial TV described by JFK’s FCC head Newton Minnow, PBS showed what a wonderful medium television could be. At the core of this excellence was the fact that there were no sponsors to muzzle production values and dumb down the product.

Originally there was an organization called NET (National Education Television) which merged with New York’s Channel 13 in 1963. It had been operating under various names producing educational television programs that were distributed to various stations around the country. It had originally been funded via a grant from the Ford Foundation to produce educational programs. With the merger in 1963 the philosophy changed drastically in that the aim was to become America’s “Fourth TV Network”. When in 1966 the Ford Foundation began to withdraw funding the Federal Government stepped in.

“In 1966, NET’s viability came into question when the Ford Foundation decided to begin withdrawing financial support because of NET’s continual need for additional funding. In the meantime, the affiliated stations tried to keep the network alive by developing a reliable source of revenue.

The U.S. government intervened and created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967 to fund the network for the time being. However, the CPB’s intent was to create its own public broadcasting network. The CPB embarked on that course of action because many NET affiliates were alienated by the programming that network offered. These affiliates further felt that NET’s simultaneous production and distribution of programming constituted a conflict of interest.

PBS first began operations in 1969, with NET still producing several shows. However, NET’s refusal to stop airing the critically praised but controversial documentaries led to the decision of both Ford and the CPB to shut the network down. In early 1970, both threatened to cut their funding unless NET merged its operations with Newark, New Jersey public station WNDT-TV. (This did not, however, end the production and distribution of hard-hitting documentaries on public television, since PBS itself continues to distribute and CPB continues to help fund series including Frontline, POV and Independent Lens to this day.)

On Monday, October 5, 1970, the exact day that PBS began broadcasting, NET and WNDT-TV officially completed their merger. NET ceased to operate as a separate network from that point, although some NET-branded programming, such as NET Journal, was part of the PBS schedule for another couple of years before the identity was finally retired. WNDT’s call sign was changed to the present WNET shortly thereafter. Some shows that began on NET, such as Sesame Street, continue to air on PBS today.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Educational_Television

When the government took over the formerly independent WNET the changes were at first unnoticed. However, as is the nature of bureaucracy the independence of content and programming began to be subject to political needs and as a medium, the product became diminished into what can only be seen as TV, that while on occasion is daring and revolutionary, is purposed to support and glorify the corporate state and the elite that runs it. Occasionally, really courageous insightful programs will slip by and air. This though is happening less frequently as outside pressures force self censorship on producers. What follows are current examples of why this is true.

My summers are spent in the mountains of New York State. Last Monday night I watched PBS Channel 13 from “Antiques Roadshow” at 8:00pm thru an “American Masters” detailing the life of Mel Brooks. What I saw was a surprise to me since not only were there the usual corporate intros to each show, but now there was a five minute string of what you would call actual TV commercials, though more tastefully done than one would see on regular TV. Even where I live in Florida, the PBS stations do not show regular, between show commercials. Here they were on my beloved NY Channel 13. When I read a New Yorker article the next day on a brewing programming scandal I felt a follow up blog on PBS was needed.

The New Yorker article was titled: “A Word From our Sponsor” and subtitled: “Public Television’s attempt to placate David Koch” by Jane Mayer.

“Last fall, Alex Gibney, a documentary filmmaker who won an Academy Award in 2008 for an exposé of torture at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, completed a film called “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.” It was scheduled to air on PBS on November 12th. The movie had been produced independently, in part with support from the Gates Foundation. “Park Avenue” is a pointed exploration of the growing economic inequality in America and a meditation on the often self-justifying mind-set of “the one per cent.” As a narrative device, Gibney focuses on one of the most expensive apartment buildings in Manhattan—740 Park Avenue—portraying it as an emblem of concentrated wealth and contrasting the lives of its inhabitants with those of poor people living at the other end of Park Avenue, in the Bronx.   

Among the wealthiest residents of 740 Park is David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who, with his brother Charles, owns Koch Industries, a huge energy-and-chemical conglomerate. The Koch brothers are known for their strongly conservative politics and for their efforts to finance a network of advocacy groups whose goal is to move the country to the right. David Koch is a major philanthropist, contributing to cultural and medical institutions that include Lincoln Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In the nineteen-eighties, he began expanding his charitable contributions to the media, donating twenty-three million dollars to public television over the years. In 1997, he began serving as a trustee of Boston’s public-broadcasting operation, WGBH, and in 2006 he joined the board of New York’s public-television outlet, WNET. Recent news reports have suggested that the Koch brothers are considering buying eight daily newspapers owned by the Tribune Company, one of the country’s largest media empires, raising concerns that its publications—which include the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times—might slant news coverage to serve the interests of their new owners, either through executive mandates or through self-censorship. Clarence Page, a liberal Tribune columnist, recently said that the Koch’s appeared intent on using a media company “as a vehicle for their political voice.”” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all

We have had many blogs and discussions of the Koch Brothers here at Jonathan Turley’s blog and funding of PBS has fallen to 12% of revenues and PBS, with its’ constituent stations, has been forced to rely heavily on the largesse of corporate donors and wealthy individuals. David Koch alone has been said to have contributed about one billion dollars alone to various PBS stations. We also know that PBS is courting corporate sponsors heavily:

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. When at the beginning of each PBS program the ubiquitous last statement is intoned “and from viewers like you”, they really don’t mean “you” do they?

“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”. http://whowhatwhy.com/2012/04/17/political-ads-destroy-public-broadcasting-uniqueness/

One of my contentions is that both political parties in the United States are controlled by elite corporate interests. Their material differences are of whether to use an “iron fist” to retain control, or to use a “velvet glove” covering that “iron fist”. Beyond the concept of party though is the propaganda that has created the mythology that we are a country ruled by its’ Constitution, its’ legal system and most importantly its people. Indeed, the Founding Fathers meant this to be in the government they produced in what we can glean from their intent expressed in writing. Washington warned of partisanship. Franklin mused on whether their descendants would be able to keep the power of the people. The founding document has within it an acceptance of slavery by necessity of compromise. The idea of women having any rights at all would have been deemed scandalous if proposed. The radicals among the revolutionary leaders like Samuel Adams were soon marginalized and in effect the government that resulted from our Constitution was led by the wealthiest and most successful men in the country. This has continued up to today, yet we remain a rather stable country, due to the fact that most citizens still believe we are a democracy and have the most “freedom” of any nation in the world. This is because our populace still believes in an “American Dream” that has been carefully sold to them via our media and educational system.

Shifting back to PBS, I think it is fair to say that PBS represents mass media aimed at the more affluent and more educated elements of the country. I choose those words carefully because all too often the assumption is made that the most affluent and most educated people in the country are the most wise and intelligent, which “ain’t necessarily so” as the song goes. This target audience of the affluent and educated is no less susceptible to propaganda and myth than are the “unwashed masses”. Possibly they are more so because their lot in life is easier and so they are more susceptible to the idea of “American Exceptionalism”. One can even say that the PBS audience represents “opinion leaders” because of their education and affluence. Indeed these “opinion leaders” find themselves paid more attention by our establishment punditry, than by the rest of the people with less affluence and less education. The rest of the people’s television needs are catered to by the broadcast networks and the cable channels, who have strayed from their original purposes. Take a look at the programming on the History Channel and National Geographic Channels for instance. In the reaction of the media to 9/11 we saw our country sold on two unnecessary wars and on the rapid deterioration of our Constitutional freedoms as exhibited by those that exclaimed “This changes everything!” in the aftermath of 9/11. https://jonathanturley.org/2012/09/15/this-changes-everything/

 People like the Koch Brothers and corporations like Exxon/Mobil, Dow Chemical and Pfizer have long recognized that their presence as PBS donors gives them some clout as to what is being shown on PBS. Their presence alone has a chilling effect, not only on the PBS Executives and the Executives of its constituent stations, but also affects the producers whose shows are shown on PBS. Again from the linked “New Yorker” article:

“In a recent phone interview, Neal Shapiro, the president of WNET, said that he grew concerned about the film, which he had not yet watched, after Ira Stoll, a conservative writer, lambasted it in the Post. On the Friday before the film’s Monday airdate, Stoll, whose Web site, Future of Capitalism, has frequently defended the Kochs, wrote, “If the station has any sense, it will use the time until then to reconsider its decision to air the program.” He added, “If it doesn’t, its trustees and donors, some of whom live on Park Avenue, may want to consider whether they want to continue supporting an institution that insults them so viciously.” The reviewer for the Times was more positive, writing, “There is plenty here to turn you into a Wall Street occupier,” and observing, “If you were still on the fence about whether to despise the superrich, this film will almost surely make a hater out of you.”

That Friday, Shapiro initially said, he called Koch at his office and told him that the Gibney film “was going to be controversial,” noting, “You’re going to be a big part of this thing.” Shapiro offered to show him the trailer, and added that he hoped to arrange “some sort of on-air roundtable discussion of it, to provide other points of view.” It could air immediately after the documentary. (Shapiro told me, “We did this after Ken Burns’s film on baseball, too. We like to have a local angle.”) Shapiro asked Koch, “Do you want to be involved?” He also offered Koch the opportunity to provide a written response, which the station could air after the show.

According to Shapiro, Koch, who rarely speaks in public, passed on the roundtable offer, saying, “I may just want to take it in and watch it, and form an opinion.” He agreed to think about contributing a written response.

Shapiro acknowledges that his call to Koch was unusual. Although many prominent New Yorkers are portrayed in “Park Avenue,” he said that he “only just called David Koch. He’s on our board. He’s the biggest main character. No one else, just David Koch. Because he’s a trustee. It’s a courtesy.” Shapiro, who joined WNET six years ago, from NBC News, added, “I can’t remember doing anything like this—I can’t remember another documentary centered around New York and key people in the city, and such controversial topics.”

PBS has standards for “editorial integrity,” and its guidelines state that “member stations are responsible for shielding the creative and editorial processes from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” A PBS spokesperson, when asked if it considered WNET’s actions appropriate, said, “WNET is in the best position to respond to this query,” noting that member stations are autonomous.”

So Ken Shapiro, a former NBC executive, who now heads up WNET Channel 13 in New York felt constrained to warn Mr. Koch about this upcoming show and to offer his own defense following the broadcast. The fact is that Mr. Koch sat on the stations Board of Directors and had contributed a lot of money to the station.

“In fact, according to a well-informed source, WNET was about to embark on an ambitious capital campaign, and before Gibney’s film aired Koch had been planning to make a very large gift. “It was going to be a seven-figure donation—maybe more,” the source said. Shapiro denies that Koch’s patronage was a motive for his phone call.”

So the ubiquitous “And donations from people like you” is in a category with the famous dictum on the Barn in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”: “Some animals are more equal than other animals”.

“Shortly before “Park Avenue” aired, Melissa Cohlmia, the chief spokesperson for Koch Industries, sent WNET a two-paragraph statement criticizing the film as “disappointing and divisive.” Cohlmia acknowledges, however, that neither she nor Koch had watched it. WNET aired the statement, unedited, immediately after the film. Cohlmia said that she based the critique on the trailer.”

So this film runs and its target immediately afterwards gets to air a statement disparaging it. I suppose one could see that as fair. However, now imagine yourself a producer of documentary films who has become aware of this and consequently become aware that powerful enemies are to be made by not pulling ones punches. How does this affect future film development?

“The weekend before “Park Avenue” aired, Gibney said, it was clear that “something weird had happened.” Shapiro called him at home. “He was very upset,” Gibney said. “They were thinking of pulling the program.” Gibney was told that the most pressing problem was Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York. Schumer’s staff had called WNET, arguing that “Park Avenue” falsely accused the Senator of supporting tax loopholes for hedge-fund managers. Gibney double-checked his research and stood by his interpretation. Nevertheless, Shapiro told him that he planned to allow Schumer to add a response after the broadcast. But, Gibney noted, “Shapiro told me nothing about the Kochs.”

For those who think me merely a partisan defender of Democrats please note that I despise Chuck Schumer as a politician and he is possibly the most powerful Democratic Senator.  Chuck Schumer has been throughout his career a staunch defender of Corporatism and of Wall Street. He did support the “tax loopholes” mentioned and he has been supportive of the investment banking industry, while posing as a defender of the people. Another message is thus being sent to film producers.

“Shapiro said that, in the end, he was comfortable with the journalistic standards of “Park Avenue,” and noted that he’d heard many positive comments from viewers, as well as negative ones. (The broadcast received high ratings for a PBS documentary.) But he said he felt blindsided by the Independent Television Service—the small arm of public television that funds and distributes independent films—for not giving him sufficient advance warning of the documentary’s contents. ITVS, which is based in San Francisco and was founded some twenty years ago by independent filmmakers, prides itself on its resistance to outside pressure. Its mandate is to showcase opinionated filmmakers who “take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial television.” “Park Avenue” was part of its popular series “Independent Lens,” which is aired by dozens of PBS member stations.” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/27/130527fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all

The “New Yorker” goes on in depth about the chilling effect caused to ITVS that specifically affected other productions after the airing of Gibney’s documentary and I urge you to read it to expand your background on this subject.

What I’ve tried to point out is how PBS and WNET, once bastions of independent reporting have through the incursion of corporate interests and the sponsorship of the super rich have turned away from their core values. Those values and the creation of these entities were dealt with in my first article on PBS: https://jonathanturley.org/2012/04/28/pbs-why-i-watch-but-dont-contribute/

I don’t/won’t contribute to PBS because to my mind while it sometimes offers excellent programming which I devour, in general even those good programs have been tainted by a need to gloss over the fact that there is an elite whose money controls and stifles our democratic and constitutional processes. One of the shows on PBS that I watch is “The American Experience”. Recently they did one on John D. Rockefeller. http://video.pbs.org/video/2311494786/ While there was some interesting history in it, much of it was also hagiography. One such example was the bitter coal strike by workers attempting to organize a union in Rockefeller’s Colorado Oil Fields. Its culmination was the “Ludlow Massacre” which resulted in about 25 deaths caused by Pinkerton and National Guard shooting at the striking miner’s camp. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludlow_Massacre While the film treated the terrible conditions the miners lived under accurately, it closed out the sequence with Rockefeller’s son talking the miner’s out of voting for a Union, by making promises that were never kept. When you produce a show that purportedly portrays history accurately and that show is made with a grant from Exxon/Mobil the successor to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, it seems pains are taken to not offend the corporate master.

Since I’m somewhat of a history buff, I find these changes made to revise what happened beyond annoying. This is but one of far too many examples of how corporate and elite interests has turned public television into a stealth tool for their propaganda. Because of this I can say without any guilt, I’ll watch their shows, but refuse to give them a dime.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

77 thoughts on “PBS: Why I Watch But Don’t Contribute: Part Deux

  1. PBS and NPR are both in the tank as far as I am concerned. With government funding cut to the bone, how could they not have been compromised? I am sure others would have a more polite way to put it, but when public funding is cut, they were up for sale to the highest bidder. And that is not little folks like us with our hundred dollar donations.

    Another reason I had cable service turned off. I save a hundred and twenty dollars a month, and am not tempted to watch corporate media.

    • @Otteray Scribe: I am thrilled with discovering an authentic Irish source of “energy” that I was not aware of…and certainly didn’t ever get it from PBS’s efforts lately…however, there was reason beyond the percussion that I referenced the interview with John Densmore above. In part it was because this di come from Public Radio. Moreso because Densmore’s discussion goes into a very serious “ethical” foundation that was truly part of the counter-culture of the 60s but is lost in the commercialization process of marketing. The discussion is a battle. A battle of loyalty and consciousness and being true to a principle that is just beyond your grasp, but you can touch. So easy to let go but Densmore gives us a sample of someone willing to keep his finger on the truth; even as it challenges his very being.
      You have to view the interview. It is authenticity that can not be duplicated and mass produced for market…and yet the Doors were and are to this day…market successes. But you have to view the interview.

      Still further, Densmore goes beyond “drumming” in the final performance he gives at the enc of the interview. He becomes something truely cultural and there is a presence there that you can’t package and commodify. Once again you have to experience it by viewing.

      But still further. Densmore “enters into” a poem as he chants and creates a flowing rhapsody of rhythmic soul. And that soul/spirit unity is beyond words alone and beyond drumming alone. If you listen and view it you will see something that graces humanity and is rarely created these market days…You will see ART as a sacred enactment and it will engage you with a sense of what is vital but oh so fleeting. And the poem that he enacts into his bohemian chant is of living pain; and of the human sacred lonely search for meaning. Here is the poem by Etheridge Knight:

      Etheridge Knight

      The Bones of My Father

      There are no dry bones
      here in this valley. The skull
      of my father grins
      at the Mississippi moon
      from the bottom
      of the Tallahatchie,
      the bones of my father
      are buried in the mud
      of these creeks and brooks that twist
      and flow their secrets to the sea.
      but the wind sings to me
      here the sun speaks to me
      of the dry bones of my father.

      There are no dry bones
      in the northern valleys, in the Harlem alleys
      young / black / men with knees bent
      nod on the stoops of the tenements
      and dream
      of the dry bones of my father.

      And young white longhairs who flee
      their homes, and bend their minds
      and sing their songs of brotherhood
      and no more wars are searching for
      my father’s bones.

      There are no dry bones here.
      We hide from the sun.
      No more do we take the long straight strides.
      Our steps have been shaped by the cages
      that kept us. We glide sideways
      like crabs across the sand.
      We perch on green lilies, we search
      beneath white rocks…

      The skull of my father
      grins at the Mississippi moon
      from the bottom
      of the Tallahatchie.

  2. Bruce, if you like drum solos, you have to like John Joe Kelley. To say he plays the bodhran is like saying Sir Edmund Hillary likes to take hikes on the hillsides.

  3. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I
    get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?

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