Spare that living tree

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1993-why502dugganThe little town where I grew up — Manning, S.C. — was small enough that we could walk to church on Sunday. My Sunday School teacher was a Southern matriarch named Virginia Richards Sauls, one of nine daughters of a South Carolina governor. Miss Virginia, as we called her, never tired of telling us the great stories of the Bible. Her favorite was the Parable of the Talents.

In that parable, a rich man leaving on a journey entrusts his property — measured in what were called talents — to his three servants for safekeeping. He returns to find that two servants have invested their talents well — so well, in fact, that their worth has doubled. The other, foolishly, has buried his talent in the ground. The master scolds and punishes the foolish, hoarding servant, but says to the wise and fruitful ones: “Well done, thou good and faithful servants; you have been faithful over a little; I will set over you much.”

That story, of course, is about the generous, productive use of gifts; about sharing, building and creating. I mention it because I am convinced that the people of public broadcasting — the local volunteers, trustees, producers, professionals and supporters who make up this enterprise — are good and faithful servants who are living out a modern reenactment of the Parable of the Talents. They do not eat tax dollars; they plant them and grow others. They are faithful over a little; they turn it into much.

I’m concerned, however, that everything those good and faithful servants have built over two generations is suddenly, seriously at risk

“We need to be candid about the real motives
underlying proposals for change.

What are we to think about would-be surgeons
who seem to despise their patient?”

For the next few minutes I’d like to talk about four things: I want to talk first about a genuine crisis that faces the nation we love. I call it the triple crisis. Second, I want to describe the remarkable local and national partnership that constitutes public broadcasting — a treasure not unlike our national parks, or the Smithsonian Institution. I want to sketch its true nature, because too many people seem not to understand it. Third, I’d like to say a few words about the dangers of loose talk, of careless rhetoric, about “privatizing” public broadcasting. If privatizing turns out to be only a euphemism for defunding public broadcasting in a way that would commercialize it — if privatizing, in the end, leads to breaking it into pieces to be sold for salvage — much could be lost, never to be regained. Fourth and finally, I want to suggest that there are better, more creative possibilities for this great national asset, this living tree called public broadcasting: possibilities far more hopeful and constructive than merely zeroing it out, or hacking the tree down to a stump.

The triple crisis

Consider the triple crisis that we face.

First there is the crisis of education: Can we send all our children to school ready to learn? Once they’re there, can we give them an education good enough to help them become productive, responsible citizens and workers in a competitive global economy?

We face, second, a crisis in our popular culture — a steadily coarsening, ever-more-tawdry, popular culture, driven by marketplace imperatives to be increasingly violent and exploitative. Today’s electronic culture of gangsta rap and kick-boxing superheroes not only makes it harder to be a parent; except for a few honorable exceptions, our media coldly abandon parents who yearn to give their children decent values to live by. Telling those parents simply to turn off the set if they don’t like the violence and tawdriness that they see is like telling people to wear gas masks if they don’t like pollution.

We face, third, a crisis of citizenship. Can we still speak with civility to one another? Can we approach our mutual problems in an atmosphere of shared purpose? We citizens in the center wonder — and we wince as our elected leaders vilify one another in an atmosphere of gridlock. We wince to hear commercial talk shows disintegrate into shouting matches and peep shows for the lurid and bizarre. Can we create what Father Richard John Neuhaus calls a civil public square?

That triple crisis points me to my second topic: I know of one institution that can constructively address every aspect of that triple crisis. It is an imperfect institution, yet one with many virtues. Its entire mission is education, culture and citizenship. It is called public broadcasting.

We could substitute, for that word “public” in public broadcasting, the more elaborate words of Abraham Lincoln: “of the people, for the people, by the people.” For public broadcasting stations are not owned or controlled by monolithic bureaucracies a thousand miles away. They’re owned by local boards, by universities, by school systems, by nonprofit civic organizations.

What could be more populist, more Jeffersonian? I can almost see Thomas Jefferson in his study, watching Bill Buckley’s Firing Line debates. Jefferson, a child of the Enlightenment, would have loved the enlightening mission of public broadcasting. Jefferson the small-d democrat would have loved its universal reach. Jefferson the inventor would have wanted to meet the pioneers who brought the world closed captioning for the deaf and an audio channel for the blind. It is not far-fetched to say that public broadcasting is Mr. Jefferson’s other memorial: a temple of minds and voices, a temple not built of stone.

That word “public” means something else: free and universally available to all. To enjoy its riches, no one has to pay thousands of dollars for a computer and software and a modem. If you do have a modem, however, we have a great new service called PBS Online. And you’ll find many public stations on the Internet, along with PBS, NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To enjoy the riches of public broadcasting, moreover, you don’t have to plug in a cable, or rent a converter, or pay hundreds of dollars a year in subscriber fees or pay-per-view charges.

That word “public” in public broadcasting refers to something else, as well: a mission that cannot be replaced by commercial operators any more than your public library can be duplicated by Crown Books, a public school replaced by a New England prep school, or a national seashore duplicated by a commercial theme park .

Our unique mission is service to teachers, students and schools. This year, hundreds of thousands of Americans will earn their high school or college degrees through courses screened by local public television stations. Millions of teachers will use classroom versions of our most famous programs; my ninth-grade son, right now, is learning about the Civil War from his teacher — and from a laserdisc version of Ken Burns’s masterpiece. As I speak to you, teachers across the nation are learning the new Goals 2000 math standards through a service called PBS Mathline. At 60 colleges — 60 and growing — students can earn a two-year degree totally through PBS telecourses, without going to campus.

That is a side of public television many viewers, and many members of Congress, don’t know enough about. That mission, however, sets us apart from every other broadcast and cable service in America. For us, you see, education isn’t an afterthought, or window dressing or a sideline. It is in our institutional genes. It is central to our purpose.

Then there’s our funding, public in the broadest sense of that word. Public television, for example, has between five and six million contributing members — five million householders who give generously to something they could get for free.

Locally and nationally, hundreds of public-spirited corporations underwrite programs — Mobil, General Motors, Archer Daniels Midland and AT&T. They can buy commercials elsewhere. Here, they care about another mission.

Generous and visionary foundations like Olin, MacArthur, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Bradley also give.

And then, joining all these stakeholders in our enterprise, there’s Congress. How much does Congress contribute each year to public broadcasting? Roughly 14 percent of the budget for this public-private enterprise. Fourteen percent. To put the question another way, how much of the federal budget does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting account for? One-50th of one percent; two-100ths of the federal budget. In decimal form, point zero two.

That’s $1.09 per person, 80 cents of it for television. If you bought just about any newspaper in the country last Sunday, you paid more for that paper than you pay for public broadcasting for an entire year. Think of it: Sesame Street, MacNeil/Lehrer, Nova, All Things Considered, Morning Edition — all this, all year, for less than the cost of a cup of coffee in Chicago. All of public television’s buildings, facilities, stations, programs, all year — everything — for a dollar a year. We could operate PBS for 10 years for what Fox paid for just one program: NFL football.

Suppose we paid for interstate highways through such a public-private partnership, with Congress appropriating only 14 percent of the total. Suppose we used this model to pay for battleships or Capitol Hill offices and staffs? Government leaders of both parties, who rightly care about frugality and efficiency, about stretching every dollar, would, I’m sure, hold parades in the streets to celebrate such feats.

Well, public broadcasting is funded through such a frugal, efficient partnership. Those who are taking aim at it, in my judgment, should instead be saying, like the master in that biblical parable, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants. Enter into the reward laid up for thee.”

Cut down the living tree, or save it?

Some of our leaders, however, are speaking in a different way. They have targeted public broadcasting for a quick, sidelong choke that could mean its eventual extinction. They intend, they say, to “privatize” public broadcasting by stripping it of federal funding. The professional political term, inside the Beltway, is “zeroing-out.”

So let me turn now to my third topic — privatizing, which at this point in the debate cannot be distinguished from another word: commercializing.

The opponents of public television deny that their opposition is ideological; they deny they want to censor or silence voices they don’t like. After much complaint about that issue, they now say they have other, more innocuous reasons. Let us take them at their word.

They argue that the federal government has “no mandate” to keep funding public broadcasting; that noncommercial educational broadcasting is “not essential” to the nation. Surely, then, they plan to zero out, as well, the Smithsonian Institution? The National Gallery? The Kennedy Center? Federal support for the Internet? For these, too, are public institutions of education and culture, like public broadcasting. And these too, are not essential; not necessary to life. They are simply among the things that make life worth living, for rich and poor alike. Why single out public broadcasting? I wonder why.

Another complaint is that public broadcasting is elitist, a “sandbox for the rich.” All the factual evidence, all the research, all the data suggest the opposite: that the people who love public broadcasting are the very same people who make up America. The majority of viewers who watch opera on public television, for example, don’t have a college degree, and their household incomes are less than $40,000 a year.

What about the contention that public broadcasting is too expensive? The numbers you have heard poke big holes in that argument — especially when you add, to the numbers, the matching efforts that expand and multiply the federal contribution. To defund this enterprise for that reason — suddenly, unilaterally, and without consulting the millions of other stakeholders who produce far more of its support — would be pound-foolish, not economical. To people outside the Beltway, to thousands of local board members and volunteers, such talk doesn’t sound like reform. It sounds like assisted suicide — a mask pressed down upon a patient who wants no such assistance, and whose family isn’t allowed into the room.

Told how frugal we are, some of these detractors about-face, awkwardly, to yet another explanation: It’s such a tiny amount, they say, it could easily be made up from “other sources” — from toy sales, for example, tied to our programming. The numbers don’t add up, but who’s counting?

We need to be clear on one important point: In our economy, there is no such thing as nonprofit venture capital. That relatively small amount of federal funding — that 14 percent of public broadcasting’s budget — is our seed money, our risk capital. If “privatize” means to “zero out” (and we’re told it does); and if no clear plan exists for replacing that seed capital (and none has emerged), then to “privatize,” means, perforce, to commercialize. Take away public broadcasting’s seed funding, starve it financially of its only venture capital, however small — and you force it headlong into the alien world of ad agencies and costs-per-thousand and merchandising, rather than the world of teachers and historians and community volunteers.

Surely those who speak of a quick, unilateral “privatizing” don’t intend that to be the final destination. Or do they?

Finally, we hear that cable can do everything public television can do. Why not let a cable network, or several cable networks, program PBS — as a sort of re-run channel? Leave aside for the moment the implication here: the whiff of trickle-down TV. Ask some other questions: Is this in the public interest, or a commercial parody of the public interest? Would America like to lose what would be lost? Would America’s existing commercial networks like such an outcome? What would such a scheme do public television’s historic role as fount and wellspring of innovative program ideas?

What, exactly, is the vision of those who would “privatize” public broadcasting? Is it a vision that preserves the original dream, or does it torch and destroy that dream? They don’t say. Is it a vision worthy of those public-spirited Republicans and Democrats of the Carnegie Commission, who created a new model called public broadcasting 25 years ago? They don’t say. Is it a vision for a new and better future? Or is it, in fact, a death warrant disguised as a new charter?

What the people say

Perhaps our leaders on Capitol Hill need to listen to what the people say. A national poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation was released today. It suggests that most Americans — 84 percent — want that small but vital federal stake in the partnership maintained or increased. Support for federal funding totals 80 percent among Republicans; 86 percent among independents; 90 percent among Democrats.

What do these numbers tell us? They suggest that the parents and teachers and grandparents of this nation — the people who live in homes with cable, and in the 32 million homes that don’t subscribe — may want a better plan. They seem to want something more than vengeful zeros, or “privatization” schemes that threaten to commercialize or kill.

Fortunately, the people of public broadcasting, and the people who cherish public broadcasting all over the nation, have lots of good ideas. All over the country, local stations are becoming educational teleplexes. They’re planting the flag of education on new technologies. They’re turning the existing infrastructure of public broadcasting into a free educational launching pad into cyberspace.

People within the world of public television have good ideas, as well, about renewing and refreshing public television: ideas, for example, about insulating its governance and financing from the political vagaries of each appropriations season. The original Carnegie Commission, made up largely of Republican business leaders, called for a national endowment, raised from a few pennies on the sale of each TV set and radio. That’s one idea. A reserve of spectrum auction money is another. Tax credits and “education technology grants” are another.

The local leaders of public broadcasting are forward-looking. They are highly capable of planning the future of their enterprise. Before changes are hatched that might be ill-considered, we need some decent ground rules. Let me suggest three:

First, all of the stakeholders who support this local enterprise ought to be invited to the table. Otherwise, any outcome is likely to be imposed, not democratic.

Second, the process should be orderly, not precipitous; careful, not headlong. Public broadcasting has taken 40 years to achieve its present excellence. Why all this haste to dispatch it in 100 days, by a quick, sidelong fiscal choking?

Third, we need to be candid about the real motives underlying proposals for change. What are we to think about would-be surgeons who seem to despise their patient?

Do they hear us?

It was Edmund Burke who pointed out that the true conservatism lops off dead branches, in order to preserve the living tree. Public broadcasting, however imperfect it may be, is part of the living tree: the tree of education, culture and citizenship. To chop up that tree and sell it off as cordwood would be violent and extreme, not conservative.

The volunteers, professionals and board members of America’s public broadcasting stations are eager to tell their leaders about the worth and potential of that living tree. They see a historian and educator as the House Speaker and they say, “History: that’s what we’re about.” They hear Speaker Gingrich discuss our need to nurture and care for our young and say, “Education: that’s what we’re about.” They hear Speaker Gingrich’s speeches about futurism and technology and the Third Wave — about laptops for the poor — and they say, in so many words, “Technology for humane ends: that’s what we’re about. Is he listening? Does he know we’re here?”

Those same leaders look at the biography of Sen. Pressler and see a son of Harvard, a Rhodes scholar, a senator whose constituents, many of them, live in rural places or are too poor to afford a monthly bill for cable, great as cable is. They say, “We have a great deal to say to him. Will he listen?”

The people of public broadcasting — thousands of them, who have created jobs and educational services and community outreach projects out of their local stations, are ready to join in a discussion about its renewal and its future. But they will also fight the reflex to destroy what they have built. Today they know that millions of Americans agree with them.

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