Ode to Public Broadcasting

When mentioning conservatives, leftists (progressives, liberals, socialists, or whatever phrase du jour these people use to describe themselves) try to claim that we are narrow-minded, inflexible troglodytes, stuck with quaint and antiquated ideas, living in the past, yadda, yadda, yadda. The most vile leftists will take it a step further, but this post isn’t about that. What is fascinating is the irony of these descriptions; they are projections since it is those on the left who exhibit these traits. The recent battles over public employee unions and these unions’ attempts to retain their power, along with the power of Democratic Party politicians who are reliant on the unions’ campaign contributions, are a graphic display of that projection.

Two of my favorite documentaries of all time are the World at War from the early 1970s and The Civil War. I have watched them both repeatedly and never get bored. The Civil War was Ken Burns’ monumental documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1990. In an editorial that will appear in Sunday’s Washington Post, Burns makes the case for maintaining taxpayer funding of public broadcasting on TV and radio, invoking Reagan as a nod to conservatives. The Post identifies Burns as a filmmaker after the piece. What it doesn’t say is that Burns has solely contributed to the Democratic Party and its candidates; he also produced a video tribute to Ted Kennedy that was shown at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

The Civil War, as I mentioned above, was first broadcast on PBS in 1990. I truly loved it. My favorite segment had to do with General Orders, No. 28, issued by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler (USV), who commanded Union forces occupying New Orleans in 1862; it is the kind of order that would apply today to the America-hating scum of Code Pink and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church (if you don’t know what I mean, read the order to get my point). But think about both the nature of television and the nature of the news media in general back then. In the radio world, we only had access to local AM and FM stations, one or two of which was taken up by NPR; there was no satellite radio or streaming via the internet. Access to print media could only be gained at the local store or via snail-mail subscriptions. And TV? Cable TV was really taking off, but with hardly the number of channels available now. There were the four networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox (it was only a couple of years old then). There were the movie channels, some as part of a basic package, and some that required an extra charge. There were the superstations (WGN, WTBS, WOR). There were a very few number of basic specialty channels. There was only one cable news channel, CNN. And then there was PBS. That’s it. And the internet? Fugheddaboudid. Internet access was still primarily based on going through a telephone line at speeds that would now have us ask, “how did we get anything done?” Burns makes this argument:

Not one of my documentaries, produced solely for PBS over the past 30 years, could have been made anywhere but on public broadcasting. Each time a film of mine happens to reach a large audience, I am “invited” to join the marketplace. Each time I patiently explain to my new suitor what I have planned for my next project – an 11-and-a-half-hour history of the Civil War, perhaps, or a 17-hour investigation of the history of jazz, or a 12-hour history of the national parks – I am laughed out of their offices, sent, happily, back to PBS.

Burns’ argument is based on how the world was when he put together The Civil War, not how it actually is today. I would guess, quite accurately, that Burns today could find a private outlet to help him produce and broadcast his documentaries, and everyone would still make a profit. Provided he was willing to go beyond the 1990 media model.

Burns also tries to dispel the so-called “myth” of the liberal media bias that currently infests public broadcasting:

Polls consistently show that huge majorities of all Americans support public broadcasting. And false arguments of bias in public broadcasting often cut both ways; members of the Clinton administration bitterly complained to me about criticism they perceived as coming from NPR. PBS is the place that gave William F. Buckley a home for almost 30 years. In an age when nearly everyone selects their media on the basis of their political views, it’s refreshing to have an in-depth option that periodically upsets the powers-that-be in both parties.

First, polls may show Americans support public broadcasting, but in these times aren’t willing to pay for it. And if they aren’t willing to pay for it during hard times, they shouldn’t have to do so during better economic times in order to avoid silly arguments about keeping taxpayer funding for it alive.

Second, criticism is not the same as bias, so that is a false argument. The Clinton administration was getting criticism from the left for not being liberal enough; plus, Clinton himself made it a point to lie frequently during his time as President.

PBS may have given Buckley a home, but Burns neglects to mention a key fact about that. When Buckley’s show began airing, the Fairness Doctrine was still in effect, and would remain so for the next 20 years. So it isn’t as if Buckley’s show was public broadcasting’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh; it wasn’t allowed to be, by law. Besides, Buckley lived for publicly debating those who didn’t share his views (Limbaugh does too, just in a different way and through a different format). There hasn’t been a show on PBS produced by and highlighting a conservative since Buckley’s show went off the air a dozen years ago. The idea that public broadcasting is “fair and balanced” is unfounded.

This is a hoot [emphasis mine]:

Alaska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia are among the states that depend on PBS shows daily, belying the canard that this is just programming for the rich and bi-coastal.

I live in northwest Arkansas. I live in one of the most rural parts of Arkansas, smack-dab in the middle of the Ozarks. There may be some who do, but I haven’t watched five minutes of our PBS affiliate since I moved down here nearly two years ago. I, any many others, get more information on what goes on here from scuttlebutt, the weekly newspaper, and the internet. Yes, the PBS affiliate here does take on a local flavor; but that doesn’t mean it’s worth watching.

To conclude his piece, Burns tries to suck up to conservatives:

In the late 1980s, I had the honor of meeting President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. I told him I was a PBS producer working on a history of the Civil War. His eyes twinkled as he recalled watching, as a young boy, parades of aging Union veterans marching down the main street of Dixon, Ill., on the Fourth of July. Then, in almost an admonishment, he spoke to me about the responsibility he saw for a private sector-governmental partnership when it came to public broadcasting and the arts and humanities. (His administration was very supportive of these long-standing institutions.) I told him that nearly a third of my budget for the Civil War series came from a large American corporation, a third from private foundations, and a third from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an agency then led by Lynne Cheney. He smiled and then held me by the shoulders, and his eyes twinkled again. “Good work, he said. “I look forward to seeing your film.”

Burns talked to Reagan in the late 1980s. That was over 20 years ago. Due to the nature of television back then, such funding methods were required to put out documentaries like The Civil War. We don’t live in those days anymore. There is no reason private investors and foundations couldn’t pony up more money for anything he does, keeping taxpayer dollars out of things he wants to produce. Unfortunately, Burns is living in the past:

Today, our funding model remains essentially the same. But proposals to defund CPB and the endowments will put some of the best stuff on the tube and radio out of business. Somewhere, I imagine, the twinkle would be extinguished from Ronald Reagan’s eyes.

Note how Burns tries to ridiculously tug on the heartstrings of conservatives with his final invocation of President Reagan, even if what he says is true about Reagan being supportive of “private sector-governmental partnership when it came to public broadcasting and the arts and humanities.” That is the kind of statement we’ve been hearing lately from Democrats about Reagan, expecting us to not remember the vicious and hateful rhetoric Democrats and liberals threw at him when he was President. Forget it. It won’t work. Public broadcasting today isn’t what it was 20 years ago. I have a feeling that twinkle in Reagan’s eyes would have been extinguished due to how far public broadcasting has fallen and how biased against conservatives and conservatism it truly is.

I loved Burns’ The Civil War. I’m glad he made it and had an outlet to show it. I’ve watched it repeatedly and would do so again, provided I had the time. But Burns is kidding us when he says public broadcasting has a place in today’s federal budget. There are media outlets everywhere that would show the kinds of films he produces, including on the internet. The removal of taxpayer funding of public broadcasting from the budget is long overdue.