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Public TV: Last bastion of programs with class



Published: Fri, July 15, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



WASHINGTON -- When cable TV was just entering our lives 20 or 25 years ago, a lot of Americans started saying with amazing assurance, "Well, now we don't need public television. You can get everything you need on cable."

One of those conversations was about A & amp;E's "Biography" series, which I, like so many others, found to be a particularly engrossing show. It was so good, it was almost like a painless psychology lesson about various human lives we had not understood before.

While it is still shown at less-popular times of the day, it was removed from its key 8 p.m. slot, when most of us could best watch it.

Why? Maybe just a juggling of time slots, maybe something more. Even public praise is not enough when economics -- or ideology -- enter culture. And no one has to be told of the debasement of the human condition that a focus only on economics has brought us in many television shows today.

This shows me that the only security we have on television in terms of constant cultural excellence was, and is, public television. That is why I am so aggrieved and angry at the ideological shenanigans raging around PBS and threatening, for the first time since its birth in 1967, to destroy it.

'Damned spot'

The far right of the administration has been waging an all-out campaign to either take over public television or to "rid us of this damned spot." Which intention will prevail remains to be seen. But the road has been rocky.

Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the umbrella group the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees PBS but is not supposed to interfere with content, is an outspoken critic of public television and in particular of Bill Moyers for his recently canceled show, "Now With Bill Moyers." Tomlinson, who was the respected editor of Reader's Digest, has been widely accused by members of Congress of going so far as to secretly contract a consultant to monitor the political content of Moyers' and other PBS shows.

If you are a Friday night PBS-watcher, you cannot have missed that a fair-minded show like "Wall Street Week in Review" has been replaced by The Wall Street Journal editorial board ( & quot;Journal Editorial Report & quot;) discussing the week's news.

Now, let's be clear about what this case study (one of many) means: This is not a show like "Washington Week in Review," which I was privileged to be on for 22 years with moderator Paul Duke, where journalists of different newspapers and persuasions discuss the news from various viewpoints. Rather, it is a discussion among radically ideological advocates, all in total agreement.

The Journal, an excellent paper in its news columns, is in no way traditionally conservative in its editorial pages. Rather, it is "radical-conservative," as are most of the thinkers in the Bush administration. Its editors believe in "open borders" for anyone and everyone to enter the U.S.; they unflinchingly support every turn of the Iraq war; and they seem to consider any type of liberalism the equivalent of communism. This is the "balanced coverage" the PBS critics really want.

Right now, it is unclear where the fight is headed, because every week or so, funding is taken away from PBS or given back. But we do know what will happen if this strange and destructive vendetta continues.

Children's programs

There will be virtually no imaginative children's programs on television because almost all are on PBS; there will be few culturally uplifting programs because, when you make television dependent upon bottom-line economics, such shows "don't pay." Thus there will be no central cultural clearinghouse where Americans can see the ideas that enliven our culture. It will be particularly destructive to rural communities.

As the hated Bill Moyers warned in a recent op-ed piece in The Washington Post, the country is threatened by "the bastard muses," which he lists as "propaganda, which pleads ... for a special cause at the expense of the total truth; sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by and in excess of the occasion; and pornography, which focuses on one powerful drive at the expense of the total human personality."

Universal Press Syndicate




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