Sunday, May 08, 2005


For anyone's who's been caught up in the land of celeb scandals and runaway brides and grooms,
one of the bigger stories last week was the Republican assault on PBS and NPR. Or as we like to think of it (with a nod to South Park), "OH MY GOD! THEY'RE KILLING BIG BIRD!"

This assault is by no means the first. It won't be the last. The big difference this time around is how much control Republicans have in Congress. And it's easy to imagine that faced with their strength, NPR and PBS will back down as they usually do. They'll "get along to get along." And we'll all suffer.

But as Ruth noted in her Ruth's Morning Edition Report (our blog spotlight this edition), Diane Rehm took the case to the listeners last week on NPR. We're hoping others at PBS and NPR will follow her lead. If they want the public on their side, they're going to need to show some spunk.

Too often, they've depended on the public outrage. The public has screamed and hollered every time. After the show down was won, PBS and NPR would not act as victors or good sports, they'd act like they lost the battle. There's such a thing as a bad winner that goes beyond bragging. That would be acting like you lost.

And that's how PBS and NPR (especially PBS) have acted after each round. With the public firmly behind them, they've not stayed committed to equal opportunity and facts. Instead, they've bent over backwards to air the opinions of conservatives while shutting out the left.

Let's be really clear, conservatives have always had a voice on both PBS and NPR. (We checked with Jess' parents. Jess was raised on Tapestry on NPR. NPR never had a no-conservatives policy in place. Nor did PBS.) That's not the issue. The issue is that the left has lost their voice on NPR and PBS. Centrists are passed off to the public as "leftist."

If some of the public truly believe that NPR, for instance, is the home of non-stop flaming liberal voices, it's partly NPR's own damn fault for pulling the mikes on the left. By omitting them from the dialogue the result has been that the casual listener mistakes a center position for a left position.

NPR and PBS are both guilty of that. And increasingly, after rallying the public and winning the battle, NPR and PBS have responded by . . . adding more conservative voices to the line up.
Is there anyone in the country that can't easily obtain the conservative talking points from NPR or PBS? We think not.

And in the process, centrists are left looking like flaming liberals because to add these conservative voices, NPR and PBS stripped the left of air time it should have.

So when someone is on advocating, for instance, civil unions, you're not hearing from the "left."
You're hearing from the center. And if some Americans are confused, PBS and NPR have themselves to blame.

Once again, the fight will have to be fought by the public, a public that knows it can win (Republicans are running scared) but that is aware each "win" has resulted in the watering down of non-conservative voices and the need to replace factual programming with opinion because the facts don't bear out for the right on most issues. Which is why they freaked over PBS's coverage of Iran-Contra (to give one example). When the truth is dubbed "liberal," NPR and PBS shouldn't run scared.

But we've seen that time and again. After Jess wished his mother a happy Mother's Day, we got on the line to ask what her feelings were. Understand, there's not a coffee mug in that kitchen that doesn't have NPR on it. They've got tote bags and everything and anything else you could imagine.

But Jess' mother said she's helping this time but it will probably be the last time. She's tired of pouring her energy into this battle when each time PBS and NPR win, they betray their viewers and listeners by acting as though they lost and have to cede ground to conservatives. She's disgusted with the lack of programming geared towards anyone who's idea of "work" goes beyond the stock market. She's appalled by the commentaries that NPR and PBS news "personalities" make when they appear on Fox "News." (Jess' mother doesn't watch Fox "News," to be clear on that. She read David Brock's latest book and she follows Media Matters.)
As a long term NPR listener she feels personally betrayed that people who speak to her are not heard from or else are only occassionally heard from while a conservative is brought on to comment on "basically any and every story they cover."

She's sick of it. And her feelings are shared by many on the left. Save PBS! Save NPR! Why?
People on the left are beginning to ask that. The left appears willing to sign up for the struggle one more time. But NPR and PBS better grasp that the repeated attempts to cater to the right not only haven't pleased the right, they've resulted in the left feeling disgusted by what they are hearing and seeing. Maybe America's soft-middle will take up the struggle in the future?

It's doubtful the left will continue to do so if the post-struggle pattern continues. Jess' parents have always given generously to NPR and PBS over the years. Starting in 2004, they began donating the bare minimum. They don't see the point in generously supporting broadcasters that refuse to give their side air time.

We asked Jess' mother if she'd heard Diane Rehm's show and she said she did. She said her worry is that after the battle there will be an announcement that Rehm has decided to leave NPR and someone along the lines of Peggy Noonan will be given Rehm's slot.

That's the impression NPR and PBS have left with many viewers and listeners who identify as progressive or liberal. The soft-gewey middle of the road rarely shows the ability to stand up on an issue. They wait to see how either side stakes out their terroitory and then attempts a "common ground." That should worry NPR and PBS because that's not your activist base.

If NPR and PBS are expecting the right to be wooed, they should remember that the right has Fox "News" and Rush and a host of others. (And those giving to tele-evanglists probably have no dollars to spare for public broadcasting.) They're not going to fight to save you. You can put on David Brooks for an hour, George Will for an hour, Peggy Noonan for an hour, and they'll still find something to complain about. "When the symphony performed 'America the Beautiful,' one of the violinists looked irritated! He's un-American!" Or, "Why does Sesame Street have so many non-whites! Isn't it time Sesame Street relocated to a suburb?" Or, "Maya is a little too independent! She should check with her father or brother Miguel before embarking on any adventure and the mother and grandmother need to advise her that no one likes an independent female!"

Short of setting every program in the Eisenhower-era, PBS and NPR will never appease the right. They will never be able to rally the right.

Does the right have a place at the public broadcasting table? Absolutely. Everyone has a right at that table. But for the last two decades, the right's been seated at the front of the table while the left's been required to grab a to-go bag.

PBS and NPR should realize that the continued eroding of voices from the left hurts their pledge drives and hurts the image with the left. They should also realize that it hurts the nation because when centerists are seen as "flaming liberals" a whole range of opinion has been eliminated from the national dialogue. PBS and NPR are supposed to serve the public by providing voices that would otherwise not be heard on the airwaves. Considering the dominance of conservatives on AM radio, we're confused by their conservative-centrists pairings and exactly how the public is served by banishing the left from public broadcasting.

With the internet, Jess' parents have been able to listen to Pacifica and, this should worry PBS and NPR, more and more that's where their donations go.
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