House Speaker-designate Newt Gingrich said on his weekly cable TV show last week that he wants to “zero-out” CPB funding this year. Remarks by Gingrich (R-Ga.) and new Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) fit perfectly into a dire scenario described in newspaper columns by commentators from Linda Ellerbee on the left to New York Post critic John Podhoretz on the right.
Anticipating a coming legislative struggle, presidents of the public broadcasting’s national organizations have joined a task force convened by CPB President Richard Carlson. The leaders aim to “generate a full positive and informative picture of … what public broadcasting does and what it is that CPB funding buys,” said CPB spokesman Michael Schoenfeld. It is a “hidden story” that public broadcasting is “one of the most successful public-private partnerships,” he said.
Until Gingrich became the most-watched man in Washington last month, he had not been a vocal campaigner against CPB appropriations, but he now has begun objecting to political imbalance on public TV.
The Republican leader contrasted public broadcasting with National Empowerment Television, the cable network that carries his weekly show, Progress Report with Newt Gingrich. “The people who watch NET voluntarily have been paying taxes involuntarily to subsidize something which told them how they should think, and NET is free,” Gingrich said Dec. 6. Then he made a pitch for pledges to the cable net.
Earlier, Gingrich had indicated his inclination during an interview on This Week with David Brinkley on ABC-TV Nov. 13. Brinkley panelist George Will asked him: “What about the cultural institutions? Conservatives have considerable grievances against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the national endowments for the arts and the humanities. What’s their future?”
“I personally would privatize them all,” Gingrich said, without elaboration. The discussion moved on to welfare reform.
Pressler “upset” with bias
Pressler, who now chairs the Senate committee that will consider reauthorization of CPB funding next spring, did not go as far as Gingrich in recent interviews, but expressed similar views about political bias on public TV.
Pressler said in an interview on the public TV series TechnoPolitics Nov. 29 that he had grown “increasingly upset” with public TV and its liberal “political twist,” citing the interviews of Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in Ken Burns’ Baseball series.
“For example,” said Pressler, “I was watching this nice baseball series and, God, every night I’d have to listen to Mario Cuomo tell about his boyhood. It just seems, though, that all their favorite people are from the American left.”
The senator was interviewed by TechnoPolitics host Tim White on Nov. 29:
White: “What’s your take on the role of government in funding public broadcasting?”
Pressler: “I have a real problem here, becuase I like a lot of things that I see on public television. I’ve been a contributor in my own little way in my state to South Dakota Public TV. I think $100.00 a year or $25.00 a year, or whatever.”
White: “They’ll send you a bill for more now . . .”
Pressler: “Well, I haven’t contributed the last few years because I’ve gotten increasingly upset. And I voted against the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding last year because I have become upset at the political twist that I believe public TV constantly puts on things. For example, I was watching this nice baseball series and, God, every night I’d have to listen to Mario Cuomo tell about his boyhood. It just seems, though, that all their favorite people are from the American left. And true, they do throw in a few folks from the middle or right here and there, but I’ve seen it again and again–the twists on the news, the subtle twists, are from the liberal left. And that’s . . .”
White: “Do you see that in commercial television as well, Senator?”
Pressler: “I guess I do, but at least the government’s not paying for it.”
White: “Are there remedies to this situation?”
Pressler: “Again, I wouldn’t want any government remedy where there’s any requirement. But a lot of my taxpayers take a dim view of this … because people were getting–they feel they were getting–filtered news through the national liberal media. And the government is sponsoring part of that in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Now they have great music on, they have great plays and so forth. I’m talking about the twists that I just continually see put on their commentator shows, their news, and so on and so forth.”
White: “Would you plan on voting against the CPB appropriation in the future?”
Pressler: “I just don’t know. It’s one that I have to struggle with very, very hard … and if my vote came down to be the deciding vote, I would really be in anguish.”
Pressler already had vented his thoughts about PBS in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine, published Nov. 21. He was asked: “I take it you’re not a big fan of public broadcasting?”
“You could take one of the Public Broadcasting Service stars and send him out to Sioux Falls, charge $10 a head, and you’d probably get 10 people to come,” Pressler said. “If you sent Rush Limbaugh and charged $10, you’d probably get 5,000. Let’s face it: For too long, these guys in public broadcasting have told people their interpretation of what’s going on in this country. They’re startled when a Rush Limbaugh comes along, and all of a sudden people are thirsty for the truth. And that’s what I think is going on.”
The public/private defense
The new task force of pubcasting leaders was convened to coordinate efforts in putting out a “simple and positive … clear and consistent” message about the field, the national organization presidents said in a DACS message to stations on Nov. 22. Carlson met with the presidents of PBS and APTS Nov. 17 during PBS’s Fall Planning Meeting and has talked with the presidents of NPR and PRI, according to APTS Vice President Ric Grefe.
Lobbyists and public relations staffers from the big organizations also have been meeting regularly.
“We feel our messages and our positioning are just as relevant today as they were two months ago,” said Grefe, but it has become more important for nonprofessional supporters of the field to make their views known to politicians. APTS is planning a campaign to build coalitions with other organizations. The Washington groups are working with local activists to place op-ed articles around the country. Diane Papedo, former president of the National Friends of Public Broadcasting, is encouraging station volunteers to speak up politically.
Public broadcasters themselves “can’t be particularly effective in making their case” because that “looks defensive” and gets far less press attention than the expected round of attacks from political foes.
Focusing lobbying efforts on committee chairmen will not be adequate, Grefe said, because Gingrich is reducing the power of chairmen by moving more debate to the floor of the House.