Essay — From the October 2014 issue

PBS Self-Destructs

And what it means for viewers like you

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Working Families, a progressive advocacy group, faced a similar Koch-based bummer last summer, when it delivered 350,000 signatures to the New York public-television station WNET. Their petition demanded the broadcast of Citizen Koch, a documentary about the Citizens United case and the intense lobbying that had preceded the Supreme Court’s decision — particularly that of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by David Koch and his brother Charles.

The documentary came to the attention of Working Families when The New Yorker published a feature by Jane Mayer detailing the shabby treatment meted out to the filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. The Independent Television Service (ITVS), which funds a significant portion of PBS’s feature-length documentaries, had agreed to fund Citizen Koch. But when the film ran afoul of bureaucrats seeking to protect their patrons, ITVS pulled it from their roster and withdrew further support.

The Working Families campaign generated some newspaper coverage, but there was little other discernible effect. WNET issued no formal response, and not a single public-television station in America agreed to show the film. “So many people were deeply upset by what happened,” Working Families representative Joe Dinkin told me. “They felt betrayed.” Little wonder: an organization that prides itself on “treating its audience as citizens” and calls the American public its “most important stakeholder” had rolled over for a billionaire.

How times have changed! Twenty years ago, PBS reacted with far greater zeal when confronted with accusations of misconduct. In 1993, the network aired two documentaries about the agriculture industry that exposed the toxic effects of pesticides. For conservatives, the films confirmed public television’s liberal bias. Thousands of letters, many of which proved to be orchestrated by the industry itself, poured in demanding that PBS stop its reckless defamation of the free market. The timing was perfect: Bob Dole, Jesse Helms, and Orrin Hatch had recently slashed the federal budget, which would surely mandate belt-tightening at PBS too. By 1994, Newt Gingrich had called for public-television funds to be “zeroed out” once and for all.

PBS rallied the troops. Local stations beseeched their viewers to write to Congress in support of government funding. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — the entity responsible for distributing federal funds to PBS — sprang into action. To dispel its reputation as a frivolous drain on the Treasury, CPB stressed the role of its private donors, proving that it was, in fact, just the sort of public-private partnership (like the lottery!) that Gingrich and other federal bloat-busters held so dear.

It also formed a task force to showcase public television’s bipartisanship, and went to elaborate lengths to disprove the charge of liberal bias. In short order, PBS viewers would be treated to National Desk, a right-leaning news show that featured guests like Phyllis Schlafly on topics like women’s rights. (Schlafly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment on the supposed grounds that it would mandate unisex public bathrooms.) More was to come. In the years following the Gingrich offensive, PBS would air projects by Peggy Noonan and William Bennett, among other atonements.

Perhaps PBS went too far in placating its conservative critics. Yet such overcompensation is clearly preferable to the silence that has greeted the public outcry over Koch’s patronage. In the meantime, PBS aligned its public-affairs programming with yet another conservative billionaire. As hundreds of thousands of outraged progressives rent their garments over the Koch affair, WNET officials launched a new series about pension reform, which was secretly funded by John Arnold — a former Enron trader who had launched a personal crusade against civil-servant pensions.

1 “We made a mistake, pure and simple,” said Stephen Segaller, vice president of programming at WNET, in a statement issued in February. “The PBS NewsHour Weekend is a new production and while we thought we were following the guidelines and the correct vetting processes, we were incorrect. WNET sought the Arnold Foundation funding because of our belief that public pensions is an important issue. The Arnold Foundation did not direct or prescribe our reporting, never attempted to do so, and is not responsible for our mistake.”

Arnold’s involvement flagrantly violated the PBS mandate to keep “creative and editorial processes [free] from political pressure or improper influence from funders or other sources.” When David Sirota exposed the relationship on the PandoDaily website and pointed out that the title, The Pension Peril, was somewhat less than neutral, WNET returned Arnold’s money and put the series on hiatus. They did, however, keep the name.1

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