By Donella Meadows
–April 6, 1995–
“The appropriation is gone,” said Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: “The power of the Speaker is the power of recognition, and I will not recognize any proposal that will appropriate money for the CPB.”
Why not? How could anyone begrudge the piddling public support (19 cents of every $1000 we pay in taxes) that helps bring us Bert & Ernie, Ken Burns, Prairie Home Companion, and All Things Considered?
Here is one reason, according to Gingrich: “They’re sitting on very valuable assets. Channel 8 in Atlanta is choice spectrum. Sell that slot to a commercial operation, move PBS to Channel 36, and Georgia Public Broadcasting could live forever on the interest from that trust fund.”
Here is another: “I don’t know why they call it public broadcasting. As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing public about it, it’s an elitist enterprise. Rush Limbaugh is public broadcasting.”
CPB will probably survive. Even if the 16 percent of the CPB budget that comes from the government is “zeroed out,” that amount could be made up with more awful on-air fundraisers and more corporate sponsorships that look increasingly like ads. Money is not the problem here.
The problem is democracy. The problem is politicians of any ideological stripe messing about with the media. Whether it’s Senator Jesse Helms wanting to buy CBS to shut up Dan Rather, or Soviet troops moving in on the Lithuanian TV tower, the first instinct of the authoritarian is to silence any source of information that does not reflect the exact point of view of the authoritarian.
Hence right-wingers say that the media, especially the public media, are left-biased. Why should they pay taxes to subsidize the broadcast of opinions or even facts that they happen to loathe?
To which there are three answers. First, public broadcasting is not biased leftward. Second, even if it were, it would not come close to balancing the overwhelming pro-establishment bias of the commercial networks. Third, the essence of democracy is the assumption that no one point of view has a handle on Truth, that collectively we move toward Truth only by listening to and learning from people with whom we disagree, and that the role of the media is to transmit all ideas, and most especially ideas that people in power don’t like.
To those who live in Maine, the whole nation appears to be west. To those who dwell far to the right, all the media seem left. To those on the left, of course, commercial and even public broadcasting look like conservative pabulum. The airwaves carry the voices of business, money, and power, not the voices of labor, community, small farmers, grassroots environmentalists, the poor, the powerless. We hear whites more than blacks, men more than women, and the radical right “balanced” with the mild middle-left.
The left would say money is taken from us twice over to subsidize the commercial networks. First, every time we buy a product we pay for the ads that brainwash us. Second, those ads are deducted as a business expense, shifting the tax burden away from corporations and onto us. Put a stiff tax on ads, they would say, rent 50 percent of the broadcast spectrum to the highest commercial bidders, use the money to support three or four CPBs, give the rest of the dial and a few newspaper-sized printing presses to labor, environmental, community, minority, and other voices that can’t afford to buy their way into the public discourse, and then, finally, we’ll have unbiased media.
In the early days of radio, the system worked that way. Farmers, workers, towns, churches, universities, and a wide variety of other nonprofit organizations sprouted their own stations. Then the government stepped in to prevent overlapping broadcast bands. Then the growing commercial networks of CBS and NBC got to the government. In 1928 the Federal Radio Commission called the nonprofit stations “propaganda,” as opposed to the “general service” commercial stations — and since then the spectrum available to nonprofits has narrowed, and so has the range of information we hear.
The Newtsies want, quite openly, to complete the job, to reallocate not only Channel 8 in Atlanta, but all the public broadcasting channels to commercial owners. Gingrich is quite clear about how he wants those owners to behave. In a meeting with corporate executives last month, he warned them about “socialist” newspaper editorial boards and told them to stop advertising in newspapers that do not endorse their views. The same, presumably, goes for sponsors of commercial radio and TV.
That is political censorship. Whether it comes from the right, the left, or the corporations, it is dictatorship. It is free speech only for those with money. It is the final blow to democratic debate, which is already nearly gone in this country. And, strangely, it’s a backhanded admission of weakness on the part of the censors. There can be only one reason to want to shut out every point of view but your own. It must be because you know, though you may never admit it even to yourself, that your point of view can’t stand up to the competition.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995