Monday, March 28, 2005

PBS under attack

This past week, I had the immense pleasure of watching an incredible Masterpiece Theatre production of the great Boris Pasternak drama, Dr. Zhivago. I remain in awe. The film reveals in much more detail than did the Omar Sharif/Julie Christie version the dark side of Bolshevism, and presents a much more realistic potrayal of human weakness.

I have not read the novel, although now I know I must.

What most made an impression upon me was how it seemed the true love was between Tonya and Zhivago--although tragically, Zhivago only realized it too late. In the Omar Sharif/Julie Christie film, Tonya (played by Geraldine Chaplin) was a less-desireable character, seeming too pampered and naive to hold Zhivago's interest. The Tonya in the Masterpiece Theatre version was a much more independent spirit, but held back her own independence for love of Zhivago. It was only after Tonya left for good, giving Zhivago his freedom, that he realized her love was much stronger than any Lara could provide.

I was also struck by the more emotionally challenging scenes which would never have been allowed in the earlier film: a young boy shot at the moment he received his freedom, and a cannibalism scene. It's just a sign of the changing times.

The occasion of seeing that great drama on PBS leads me to a post I've been wanting to do for quite a while about the difficulties PBS is facing again from reactionary Republicans. Public television has been under fire ever since the Reagan administration, and maybe Nixon as well. That's right, PBS, the people who bring you Big Bird, Mister Rogers, acclaimed science programs like NOVA and National Geographic, and yes, controversial but well-researched programs like Frontline that serve our democracy well by asking tough questions.

Most recently, I was shocked and angered when PBS caved in to Republican pressure to cut back the PBS news magazine Now from a full hour program to a half hour format. Complaining that Bill Moyers was too liberal (meaning he reported on the hubris, lies, and hypocrisy of the Bush administration), Republicans in Congress suggested that the program should be co-hosted by someone with conservative credentials--that bow tie twit Tucker Carlson, or Paul Gigot.

Sadly, the Republicans won (I say "Republicans" not "conservatives" because, as is often the case, this is not a "conservative" versus "liberal" battle--it is a one-sided war by Republicans to censor any criticism against them). After Bill Moyers retired, PBS downsized Now to a half hour, and they allowed Tucker Carlson to host his own half-hour program of the most self-righteous blather, hypocrisy, leading questions, and strategically-omitted questions in PBS history. Honestly, I can't recall Bill Moyers ever stating on air that he was a "liberal", but Tucker Carlson promotes his "conservative" beliefs at every opportunity.

There are lots of other signs that the network is in trouble. Earlier this year, Pat Mitchell announced that she would retire next year as the PBS president. She objects to claims that she's leaving because of Republican pressure. Meanwhile, program underwriting is down from $221.9 million in 2001, to $184 million last year. "The risk is the tighter your budgets get, the less you can afford to fail," said the PBS chairman Alberto Ilbarguen. "If you can't afford to fail, you can't afford the risks."

Here are extracts from an exceptionally well-written NY Times editorial:

"...conservatives in Congress and the White House have apparently decided that independence is O.K. only as long as the programming doesn't stray from their political ideology. Since the federal government provides 15 to 20 percent of the budget for public broadcasting, Washington's heavy hand--which comes crashing down with petty and even ludicrous complaints--threatens to choke the creativity out of PBS.

When conservatives attacked the respected Bill Moyers, labeling him a dangerous liberal, PBS offered Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot. Whatever slightly liberal flavor might be dug out of Moyers broadcasts, those are openly ideological conservative editorialists. Will they do investigations like Mr. Moyers? Will they dig beneath the large, loud surface of TV punditry? If not, how, please, is PBS different from MSNBC?

If this Congress and president make their political mark on PBS, what's to stop the next president from doing the same? Politicians should not be allowed to trim public broadcasting to their liking"

And here, remarks from my letter to Pat Mitchell:

"At a time when conservative perspectives increasingly dominate the media--and Carlson in particular is a ubiquitous media presence--the decision by PBS to fund and broadcast blatantly conservative programs runs counter to the public broadcasting system's founding mission to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," and to broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity."

If you want to keep me as a supporter, please re-consider the conservative slant of your programming and go back instead to the principles of journalistic integrity that have guided PBS since its inception."

Finally, these letters to the NY Times editorial board:

"As a 16-year old, I am perplexed that conservative groups choose to direct their criticism at PBS.

If I were a parent worried about television content, I would be much more disturbed by the violence and the erectile dysfunction ads that other channels show, and I would not let my children watch TV at all."

Yelena F.
Swarthmore, Pa.

"The attack on PBS by the right is the last straw. What the right really fears is the loss of votes that may result from an informed electorate, and it is therefore willing to destroy the most beautiful programming on television to achieve its ends--shows like 'Nature' and 'Masterpiece Theater' that have imitators on cable television but no real rivals, and the best in children's programming.

Well, I have news for conservatives. I pay taxes, too, plenty of which support policies that I don't support but accept as part of living in one of the greatest societies on earth.

It's time for conservatives to grow up."

Deborah M.


At 3/30/2005 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Rob said...

That makes me sick. PBS is the last outpost of sanity on television. Okay, well, there's the suit of Discovery channels and HBO and BBC America, but you have to pay more for all of them. How about we cut the DoD budget by 2/3, close most of our bases overseas and double PBS's budget? A guy can dream....


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