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And what it means for viewers like you

Last October, I watched as a passel of activists convened in front of WGBH, Boston’s public-television station. There were about three dozen of them on the concrete forecourt, many in matching T-shirts layered against the chill, but one middle-aged man wore a ministerial robe and clerical collar. Another activist of uncertain gender waved at passersby from the innards of an Elmo costume, which looked as though it had made one too many trips to the dry cleaners. WGBH employees, as well as cameramen and reporters on hand to cover the protest, weaved through the crowd.

The grassroots climate-change group Forecast the Facts had organized the rally as an attempt to expel David Koch from the station’s board of trustees. The members had collected and printed out 120,000 digital signatures and placed them in boxes, which they planned to present at that afternoon’s board meeting. (The trustees had already agreed to take delivery.) In the interim, they made brief speeches, mostly for the benefit of the reporters, since the studio’s location overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike precluded much in the way of foot traffic.

Illustrations by Thomas Allen

Illustrations by Thomas Allen

The very presence of protesters at a public-television station felt inordinately strange — an impression abetted by Elmo, the minister, and the building itself, a futuristically mirrored slab that seemed to have escaped from a Silicon Valley office park. The speakers took turns at a microphone rigged to a small PA system. They denounced the evildoings of Koch Industries. They expressed disbelief that an oil tycoon known for his disdain of climate-change science could be allowed anywhere near the station, which is not only the jewel in the crown of PBS but also the producer of NOVA, the longest-running science show in existence. How could a founding member of the Cato Institute — a conservative think tank that has argued vigorously against federal funding for PBS — be given the chance to destroy public television from within?

The speakers’ voices brimmed with feeling. They sounded angry, perplexed, determined — and above all, hurt. As they passed the microphone back and forth, Elmo waggled a placard with a pithy message scrawled in black marker:

elmo love wgbh
elmo no love koch lies

At the appointed hour, the group (minus Elmo) filed into the lobby and formed an orderly line at the welcome desk. Excited speculation about Koch’s attendance burbled through the crowd. Would he show up? Could we sense his presence? What happens to those who gaze upon the face of purest evil?

An uncomfortable silence descended as we entered the elevator. We walked into the boardroom, a pleasingly anodyne space, and took our seats in folding chairs that had been set up near the door. We eyed the trustees, a well-heeled lot in understated business attire seated around a big table. None looked especially distraught or even agitated. Koch wasn’t there.

The big man’s absence had a palpably deflating effect. Brad Johnson,1 the organization’s campaign director, and Fred Small, the minister, reprised their complaints with less vigor than before. Board chairman Amos Hostetter thanked them, then delivered some prepared remarks enumerating all the reasons why David Koch would remain on the board regardless of his political affiliations. Ten minutes later, we left the way we came in.

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.

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.2

Why would a man like David Koch, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in weakening the federal government, expend a nickel on behalf of PBS — an entity viewed by many in his party as synonymous with liberal propaganda and government waste? And why would a publicly funded institution let him in the door, let alone risk its reputation to defend him from his critics?

The answer: conservatives have refined their tactics. In recent years, they have recognized that on pragmatic grounds, PBS just isn’t worth the fight, since it accounts for such a microscopic percentage of federal expenditures. But they have also become cannier about the uphill PR battle they face when denouncing public television. As the Democratic Massachusetts senator Ed Markey once noted: “The problem is that once the debate on PBS begins, then Big Bird shows up and says, ‘Why are you trying to kill me?’ ”

Of course, some candidates never learn. Markey’s words seem particularly prophetic in light of the last presidential election, when Mitt Romney told Jim Lehrer that despite his affection for Big Bird, he would cut PBS funding. His remark inspired some 350,000 tweets, as well as such viral imagery as a picture of the Sesame Street regular holding a will work for food sign. (Even Obama got into the act with a snarky tweet: “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”) Had Romney taken his cue from subtler cronies, he might have fared better on Election Day.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter that the Republicans couldn’t defund PBS — they didn’t really need to. Twenty years on, the liberal bias they bemoaned has evaporated, if it ever existed to begin with. Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. This should surprise nobody who has taken a long, hard look at PBS’s institutional history. Yes, it’s tempting to view the last couple of decades as a discrete epoch of decline, with the network increasingly menaced by a cartoonish G.O.P. hit squad, helmed by Newt Gingrich as Snidely Whiplash. But the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start.

For one brief, shining moment — which occurred before its actual creation — PBS was an uncompromised thing. It began as a Great Society initiative under the Johnson Administration and, like other public-works programs of the era, was conceived as a way to level the effects of poverty and close the education gap. Television, which was then rapidly expanding thanks to new developments in microwave radio-relay technology, seemed like the most effective way to reach the greatest number of people. A coast-to-coast educational network could provide all American children with access to a common curriculum, while programs of cultural and political worth — which commercial networks couldn’t or wouldn’t risk bad ratings to air — could help their parents become better-informed citizens.

Illustration by Thomas AllenAt the time, commercial networks were almost completely unregulated, showing any old crap and plenty of ads. But in 1961, four years after a Pennsylvania journalist coined the phrase “idiot box,” incoming Federal Communications Commission president Newton Minow assailed commercial broadcasting as a “vast wasteland.” The fallout, as the historian Mary Ann Watson details in The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years, was immediate. Almost overnight, pundits became hypercritical of television fare, publishing book-length takedowns such as Harold Mehling’s The Great Time-Killer and Meyer Weinberg’s TV in America: The Morality of Hard Cash. Things got so bad, Watson notes, that the broadcasters turned to the very eggheads who were raking them over the coals. The public-relations arm of the National Association of Broadcasters issued a directive to its members to court “highly intellectual opinion makers” as a way to ward off criticism.

There were already 114-odd educational stations scattered around the country, loosely united by the National Educational Television network (NET). This precursor to PBS represented the network’s meager interests in Washington and sent them five hours of weekly programming via U.S. Mail. Many of the local stations, however, were on the brink of collapse — especially those serving rural communities, which not only lacked the funds to produce quality content but were unable to stay on the air during prime time. Just a handful, including WGBH, made shows for a wider audience.

And even in those cases, the pickings were pretty slim. NET and New Jersey’s WNDT, which later merged to form Channel Thirteen/WNET, produced and distributed a handful of programs like Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt and a weekly public-affairs show called Court of Reason. These sound dull as dirt (though they routinely alienated affiliate stations with their perceived East Coast sensibility and liberal bent). The same could be said of An Age of Kings, a 1961 chronological series of Shakespeare’s histories and the first BBC series to air on U.S. public television.3 In those days, The French Chef was about as exciting as it got.

To make matters worse, U.S. noncommercial broadcasting had fallen far behind that of other nations. Many Western democracies already had well-established, well-regarded national networks. So did the Communist bloc — by the early 1960s, even tiny Albania broadcast several hours of state-funded educational television each day. It was time America caught up.

In 1964, the Johnson Administration convened the prosaically named First National Conference on Long-Range Financing of Educational Television Stations. The conference in turn begat the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. This task force would assess the sorry state of American educational television, sending representatives as far afield as Great Britain and Sweden to study examples of government-funded networks.

The men of the Carnegie Commission — and they were all men, with the exception of Oveta Culp Hobby, the chair of the Houston Post Company — consisted of fifteen grandees in such fields as economics, engineering, and physics, most of them affiliated with leading universities and government. Representing the world of culture were the concert pianist Rudolf Serkin and the novelist Ralph Ellison, the sole person of color. There was also J. C. Kellam, a member of the president’s inner circle with a potential conflict of interest. He happened to serve as head of the LBJ-owned Texas Broadcasting Corporation, whose Austin television station, KTBC, had been accused of extorting advertising fees. (In 1964, Johnson would take steps to crush any further investigation, personally threatening the Dallas Times-Herald while taking care to cover his own tracks: “A president oughtn’t be calling about chickenshit stuff like this.”)

In 1967, the commission delivered its report, “Public Television: A Program for Action,” to the White House. In addition to practical solutions for giving every American free access to its new creation, the report offered a study in early-Sixties idealism. The commissioners drew a bright line between commercial television and its educational counterpart: one was shameful, the other worthy. They drew a fuzzier line between educational and public television. The latter, as they saw it, would broadcast the same kinds of programs as the former, but of a higher caliber. In other words, public-television programs would be so dynamic, relevant, and edifying that ordinary people might actually want to watch them. To understand the report’s grand hopes, consider its extravagant epigraph, written by none other than E. B. White, which reads in part:

I think television should be the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills. It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot. It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle.

The utopian thought didn’t stop there. Television was a “miraculous instrument” with the potential to be as “profoundly educative as life itself is educative.” To create a network befitting our great nation, the commission demanded that “the best energies, the best resources, [and] the best talents” be marshaled on its behalf. (The report, which was simultaneously published by Bantam Books, sold 50,000 copies within a single day.) The commission’s ardor swayed Congress, which not only passed the Public Broadcasting Act that same year but granted $9 million to a brand-new entity called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (PBS would come two years later, in November 1969.) Signing the act into law, LBJ again enunciated its Periclean goals:

It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a “chicken in every pot.” We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit. That is the purpose of this act.

Yet this spirit-enriching initiative hit some immediate procedural potholes. Johnson, responsible for choosing the corporation’s board members, neglected his task for months. Ostensibly this was due to some unfortunate developments in Vietnam — indeed, it was the height of the Tet Offensive. But John W. Macy Jr., whom Johnson appointed as CPB president, suspected other reasons for LBJ’s dithering. “The media and the academic community had increased the volume of their protest against the conduct of the war,” he wrote. “Would this extension of the media with federal backing add new sights and sounds of opposition?”

As it happened, it did. A new weekly public-affairs show, Public Broadcast Laboratory, spoke out against the war in Vietnam while also rankling the administration, the station affiliates, and at least part of the public with shows about hippies and racial politics. In Made Possible By . . . : The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, James Ledbetter explains how the series tackled the issues of the day in a way network television would and could not (and public television rarely would again). Its first episode included a dispatch from the west side of Chicago, showing “children eating out of dumpsters, bombed out buildings, [and] a convulsing dog dying in the street.” By 1969, PBL was off the air, a casualty of conflicting interests among its many overseers, including stations in the South uncomfortable with its frank appraisal of the civil rights movement.

The same year PBL was canceled, Richard Nixon took office. The president and his advisers, vociferous in their belief that the televisual medium was controlled by a shadowy Ivy League cabal, considered public television to be the very worst of a bad lot. Its sins were legion, foremost among them a leadership lousy with Kennedy and Johnson associates.

The first disaster was not long in coming. In 1970, the fledgling PBS network (whose creation I’ll discuss below) ran Morton Silverstein’s Banks and the Poor, a documentary about the ways in which New York City’s largest financial institutions screwed over low-income Americans. The film closed with a roll call of bank-friendly legislators, which scrolled over a picture of the Capitol while “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played in the background.

Bill Moyers, who had just started working for PBS at the time, later recalled the fallout: “All hell broke loose. President Nixon and his special assistant, Patrick Buchanan, were so outraged that the president vetoed CPB’s reauthorization bill and wouldn’t sign another until the chairman, president, and director of television for CPB resigned.” Nixon also commanded Buchanan to expel two “left-wing commentators” — the newly hired Robert MacNeil and Sander Vanocur — from the network, a task at which he failed.

Macy, meanwhile, had a terrible time on the job. A career government employee, he had served as personnel director at Los Alamos and as chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Soon after his appointment in 1969, he found himself in a considerably less idealistic environment than that foreseen by the Carnegie panjandrums. The obstacles, as he later recounted, were numerous:

First, even though my service in the Kennedy-Johnson administrations had been in the nonpartisan area of civil service, my presence was viewed by some as evidence of Democratic influence. Second, my long-time federal service was judged to be a forecast of governmental behavior on the part of CPB and contributed to the perception that CPB was in fact an agency of the government. Third, I had no direct experience in broadcasting, commercial or educational, in my career.

Regardless of his qualifications, Macy was hardly the worst appointee to the CPB board. In Made Possible By . . . , Ledbetter puts his finger on one of CPB’s most glaring defects: its leadership is chosen by the president.

“The damage that it has done to the system can hardly be overstated,” Ledbetter told me recently. “The CPB over the years became a dumping ground for the worst kind of political hack.” He cited Sheila Tate, whose résumé included a stint as Nancy Reagan’s press secretary and the coining of a catchy phrase (“What you call negative, we call comparative”) to justify attack ads against the hapless Michael Dukakis.

The CPB, Ledbetter argues, is a self-perpetuating favor bank. “When you’re in power, why would you give that up? There’s no incentive for an incumbent administration.” Nor is Congress likely to intervene, he notes, since “they’re busy trying to win the same political favors back for themselves. It becomes part of the Washington back- scratching game.”

Although Nixon failed to destroy the organization, his machinations mangled its infrastructure so thoroughly as to cast public television into a never-ending purgatory of infighting, shaky finances, and red tape. Indeed, the creation of PBS itself was one of the president’s most destabilizing salvos. The Public Broadcasting System was invented to wrest power from NET, which Nixon — as well as a fair number of rural public-television employees — saw as a citadel of Eastern liberal oppression. The fruit of a secret deal between administration officials and CPB board members desperate to save the medium, PBS knocked NET out of the ring (the network would soon be folded into WNET). At the same time, the deal gave local stations far greater leverage over their own programming, effectively ending the dream of a truly national public-television network.

“The system was set up to be very decentralized and kind of chaotic,” Ledbetter told me. A crazy quilt of hundreds of public-television license-holders with dissimilar budgets, audiences, and operating procedures was bound to cause problems. “It’s just not structured in a way that makes uniform national action even possible.”

Still, Nixon’s most significant acts of vandalism were financial. There was a flicker of hope for the network in 1971, when Antonin Scalia, who was then overseeing telecommunications policy at the White House, helped to draft a bill authorizing a five-year budget plan. But that would have further diffused the power of PBS and CPB by giving the bulk of the funds directly to individual stations.

What followed was a small Machiavellian spectacle. First the White House struck down a two-year, $155 million federal allotment, thereby crippling public television’s hopes for long-range funding. Then another version passed, which retained funding on a year-by-year basis. In response, a despairing CPB board voted to drop most of its public-affairs programming. This measure, too, fell short of full implementation — yet it did cull a number of controversial shows.

Ironically, while Nixon and his operatives raged, public television enjoyed a flowering of provocation and popular success, with programs that cemented PBS’s utopian image in the liberal mythos and its renegade status in the conservative one. Exhibit A: the network showed a woman’s nipples for the first time in American television history. The vehicle, an adapted off-Broadway drama by Bruce Jay Friedman called Steambath, was produced by KCET Los Angeles. The nipples belonged to the actress Valerie Perrine, who also showed her butt. Only twenty-four stations aired the program, the others presumably put off by the naked lady, the two gay characters, and the Latino actor José Pérez in the role of a steam-bathattendant God.

Elsewhere, there were other, more wholesome developments afoot. In November 1969, a WNDT producer named Joan Ganz Cooney and her organization, the Children’s Television Workshop, debuted public television’s most enduring show. Sesame Street was the result of exhaustive educational research funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the federal government. The show was an instant smash with children and critics, although Mississippi public television rejected it for its cavalier diversity.

Meanwhile, WNET began airing an issues-driven sketch-and-opinion show, The Great American Dream Machine. In addition to introducing viewers to Andy Rooney’s commonsense pedantry, the show featured contentious observations and dialogue too blue for the networks. (“Who’s the first guy you ever made it with?” asked an astoundingly young Charles Grodin.) Comedians like Albert Brooks and Chevy Chase did bits about consumerism, and “Talkin’ with Terkel,” a recurrent feature set in a tavern, featured a seemingly tipsy Studs chatting with drunk working stiffs about the issues of the day. “It was a great show if you got high,” recalled one of its producers. Although popular with stoners and revered by television connoisseurs, it lasted only two years.

Yet the increasingly intricate relationship between public-television stations, CPB, and PBS would eventually make it very difficult for programs like these to be produced in the first place. As former WNET president James Day writes in The Vanishing Vision, a book-length testimonial to his station’s torture at the hands of assorted bureaucrats, the newly empowered member stations had become “highly parochial” in their tastes. Their objections to controversial programming could now cause such administrative headaches that the national network, in addition to power of refusal, gave its affiliates the option of airing different versions of potentially offensive shows. This was a far cry from the Carnegie Commission’s original hopes for a national programming schedule that placed equal value on mass and niche audiences, as well as a harbinger of PBS’s dwindling willingness to produce shows that might cause a fuss.

In Nixon’s view, these were all positive developments, since folks in the heartland no longer had to suffer under the tweedy yoke of the coastal elite. But then came Watergate, which weakened the White House and emboldened the president’s critics. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer teamed up for the first time to cover the Watergate hearings for PBS, and Bill Moyers, whose first show was an early casualty of the Nixon purge, returned to the airwaves to deliver pointed commentary about what the scandal meant for the country. Still, public television would be forever spooked by the thought of losing all its federal funds.

“The ultimate threat of pulling the plug altogether, which Nixon came really, really close to doing, is enough to have a political ripple effect,” Ledbetter told me. “You just need to threaten to do it, and then the system learns to stay away from any content that might get you into that situation, and you’re fine. That’s why you have a lot of weasels and snakes and kids’ programming.”

By the time Reagan was elected, infighting and money woes had become the status quo at PBS. Unlike Nixon, the new president did not regard PBS as a liberal pestilence to be eradicated at all costs. As Day writes, “Reagan, unlike Nixon, felt no compelling urge to silence the voice of public broadcasting or to take it over and make it his own. He saw it not as a threat — it was too irrelevant for that — but only as another debit to be removed from the government dole.”

From the late 1980s onward, however, right-wing culture warriors kept up the assault. Their targets weren’t the public-affairs programs PBS stations produced in-house, which were institutional in tone if not outright exclusionary to dissident voices. (When the cameras weren’t rolling, Lehrer referred to anti-nuclear activists as “whiners.”) Then as now, PBS controversy swirled around documentary programming brought to the network by independent producers.

In 1988, the network rolled out POV, an ongoing series that annually airs around a dozen independently produced feature-length documentaries, usually ones already proved on the festival circuit. That same year, Congress issued a mandate for an organization that would both finance and distribute independent documentaries with outsider voices and controversial views. This was ITVS, which funded its first wave of PBS programs in 1991, debuted its first series, Independent Lens, in 1999 — and would, in 2013, withdraw its support for Citizen Koch.

But independent film producers began running afoul of internal PBS politics long before the network caved for David Koch. B. J. Bullert ran into problems with her 1986 documentary, God and Money, about a consortium of Catholic bishops who had spoken out against Reagan’s economic policies. Although she had worked with ITVS and financed the film with a $100,000 grant from CPB, Bullert felt that support eroding when it came time for PBS to broadcast the final product. There were substantial edits, endless meetings, and the subsequent complaint from one network official that she had failed to rustle up any Catholics who liked Reaganomics just fine. PBS did ultimately air the film, but Bullert was dismayed by the ideological logrolling.

In response, she put together Public Television: Politics and the Battle over Documentary Film (1997), a collection of case studies on culture war–era non-fiction films that PBS had stifled or censored outright. Days of Rage (1989), for example, was sympathetic toward the Palestinian Intifada — so the network felt obliged to package it with disclaimers, panel discussions, and, in the case of WNET, two mini-documentaries told from the Israeli perspective that cost $150,000. Stop the Church (1991), which criticized the Catholic hierarchy for its corrosive teachings on sexuality in the age of AIDS, was canceled outright.

Interviewing angry filmmakers and frustrated public-television employees, Bullert discovered that this culture of suppression had become embedded at PBS. Support from the network invariably came with conditions, some of them embodied in bureaucratic checklists. For instance, when a producer such as POV distributes a documentary to affiliate stations, it includes a list of the film’s transgressions — an advance warning for local program managers worried about giving their viewers the vapors with cuss words and body parts. The list that came with Tongues Untied (1989), Marlon Riggs’s chronicle of being black, gay, and HIV-positive, was so capacious that some local station managers opted out of broadcasting the film without even watching it.

Tongues Untied became a focal point of the culture wars when the American Family Association latched on to the controversy. Caught in the crosshairs of the conservative attack along with the “Piss Christ” cheering section at the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS awoke from its torpor and defended the film with conviction and brio. Local stations did not. So great was the stink around Riggs’s film that a full 110 PBS affiliates declined to show it. After much soul-searching, KCTS in Seattle stepped forward to broadcast Tongues Untied — at 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Marc Weiss, who founded POV, doubts that Tongues Untied could even be made today. “There are two reasons,” he told me. “One, because the FCC has narrowed what it’s willing to tolerate. But I also think there would be a lot more resistance within the public-television system from the get-go. [The film] is pretty raw. We offered only one version — there wasn’t a ‘clean’ version or something that had images obscured. It has lots of ‘fucks’ throughout. It has a lot of nudity.” Back in 1989, Tongues Untied just barely cleared the hurdles at PBS, in no small part because the head of programming thought that Riggs’s vision deserved the network’s support. But since then, Weiss argues, “the system has gotten more conservative” and even less willing to grant a controversial production one of those dead-of-the-night time slots.

“It’s called anticipatory avoidance,” Bullert told me. Local programmers make their decisions on the basis of whether a given documentary will “create a firestorm of anger, which is going to be a pain in the ass. You see this particularly in Israeli-Palestinian films.” But in Bullert’s view, this tiptoeing approach excludes not only hot-button topics but entire swaths of American culture. “PBS is so out of touch that you don’t get connections to what’s really happening for most Americans in their lives. You get little windows of opportunity through POV and Independent Lens,” she concedes. But to a great extent, PBS programming is “basically irrelevant.”

By the time Bullert was going toe-to-toe with the PBS censors, Bill Clinton had taken office. His most notable contribution to public broadcasting was his CPB appointee, Kenneth Tomlinson, a former Reader’s Digest editor. Tomlinson took the fair-and-balanced mandate to heart, lobbying hard for a stronger conservative presence in PBS public-affairs programming. In his own way, he was an expert at PBS gamesmanship: he argued that correcting the network’s tilt to the left was the only way to stave off congressional budget cuts. But like Nixon, he was also eager to tear down the walls that separated the network from straightforward political advocacy, especially once George W. Bush succeeded Clinton and there was a more sympathetic overseer (or, more accurately, collaborator) in the Oval Office.

In violation of house guidelines that supposedly barred the CPB chair from interfering with programming, Tomlinson got in touch with Paul Gigot, who ran the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. It was time, he explained, to balance out Bill Moyers’s reportage with what he called “a real conservative counterpart.” After hustling $5 million from various corporations, Tomlinson pressured the network to distribute the funds in a manner he saw fit. The result of all this finagling was a roundtable show featuring the editors of the Wall Street Journal and the public-television debut of the freakishly chipper, permanently bow-tied libertarian Tucker Carlson. (Tomlinson denied any role in the creation of the Journal Editorial Report — until his emails to Gigot surfaced in 2005.)

Tomlinson’s undoing came in 2004 when, as a kind of black op, and without consulting the CPB board, he commissioned a report to establish liberal bias in NOW with Bill Moyers, the last remaining weekly news series on public television with a markedly progressive voice. To write the report, he hired Frederick C. Mann, a former official at the National Journalism Center — a respectable-sounding subsidiary of Young America’s Foundation, the self-declared “principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement.” (The somewhat mysterious Mann, who assiduously ducked the media once the story broke, communicated with Tomlinson via a fax machine in an Indiana greeting-card store.)

The results were predictably shocking: Moyers was so far on the left he was practically an enemy of the state. This eureka moment was diminished by the report’s strange metrics. For example, any Republican critical of the Bush Administration in any way was labeled a liberal. Even Chuck Hagel, the recipient of plaudits from such right-wing bastions as the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum, ended up on the liberal side of the ledger, simply for expressing some doubts about the country’s Iraq adventure on The Tavis Smiley Show. Bill Kristol, meanwhile, was judged to have neutral opinions.

When the New York Times uncovered Tomlinson’s involvement, CPB launched a counterinvestigation of its own, which determined that the chairman had violated the Public Broadcasting Act. Tomlinson resigned in November 2005. He had perhaps predicted his professional demise back in 1984, when he was overseeing the Voice of America for Ronald Reagan. “I have often said,” he told the New York Times, “that running a journalistic enterprise under government rules constitutes an unnatural act.”

What remains today of public broadcasting is thoroughly enervated, with hardly a vestige of liberalism, purported or otherwise. Moyers, its one consistently progressive voice, has been flirting with retirement since 2004 and is now on his way out the door.4

If more proof is needed, just look at NewsHour. In 1989, the progressive media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) began observing PBS’s nightly news program to evaluate the range of its featured guests. They found the show presented even fewer disparate points of view than a network-news counterpart such as ABC’s Nightline. When it reprised the study in 2005, FAIR determined that fully half of all NewsHour guests were current or former government officials, that two out of three of its most frequent guests were Republicans, and that Republicans outnumbered Democrats two to one. Unsurprisingly, the program’s coverage of the war in Iraq leaned to the right: of 276 guests, only eight argued for troop withdrawal. In FAIR’s view, NewsHour had actually violated PBS’s mandate by featuring “voices that overwhelmingly represent those in power rather than the public that PBS is obliged to serve.”

In response, NewsHour executive producer Linda Winslow put to rest any lingering sentimentality about PBS’s utopian aims. FAIR, she wrote, “seems to be accusing us of covering the people who make decisions that affect people’s lives, many of whom work in government, the military, or corporate America. That’s what we do: we’re a news program, and that’s who makes news.” Winslow then found a loophole that would absolve her show of fulfilling any of the Carnegie Commission’s starry-eyed ideals. FAIR, she declared, seemed “to have confused the NewsHour with all of PBS.”

NewsHour viewership has dropped steeply since 2011, when the seventy-eight-year-old Jim Lehrer stepped down and was ultimately replaced by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Last summer, the program closed its San Francisco and Denver offices, and its parent company, Liberty Media, ceded ownership to D.C. station WETA. Earlier this year, David Sirota questioned the specifics of Liberty Media’s involvement with NewsHour. Had the show’s corporate benefactor influenced its editorial direction? NewsHour responded, “Liberty Media takes no profit from the ongoing operation of the PBS NewsHour program,” but those concerned are left to wonder whether a corporation owned by a Cato Institute board member, John C. Malone, would bother subsidizing a public-television show for nothing in return.

To be fair, the cozy relationship between Liberty Media and NewsHour is hardly unique. Charlie Rose, often viewed as one of the network’s pillars of objectivity, films his show in the studios at Bloomberg Television, which also broadcasts the program worldwide. Rose’s ties to a multinational corporation owned by a billionaire with a clear political agenda have yet to pique the interest of the fourth estate, many of whose members aspire to someday appear on Charlie Rose. The only substantive piece of journalism I could find about the Rose–Bloomberg connection was a fawning 2009 profile in Fortune, aptly titled “Why Business Loves Charlie Rose.” In it, David A. Kaplan notes that the partnership came about when Michael Bloomberg was chatting with his pal Bill Baker, president of Channel Thirteen/WNET:

“I’ve got this TV studio that doesn’t get used much,” Bloomberg recalls saying. “Maybe I can save you money.” Baker leaped at the idea, mentioning Charlie Rose, which Bloomberg knew of, as Rose had become a regular on the Manhattan cocktail circuit — “society’s new darling,” a magazine put it.

There is significant overlap, too, Kaplan gushes, between the host’s corporate underwriters and his guest list. Although the public may never know the details of Rose’s relationship with Bloomberg, questions about the editorial impact of their alliance seem almost moot. After all, Baker had originally envisioned Rose’s show as a gathering of high-powered New Yorkers and had chosen its host for his unique ability to put them at ease.5

Indeed, Rose’s warm relationship with the world’s richest men (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are both regular guests) mirrors that of his parent network. Over the past few years, the Gates Foundation has established itself as a major PBS underwriter. This largesse has raised some hackles, starting with a report by the Seattle Times that suggested a possible correlation between NewsHour’s perfectly worthy but conspicuously extensive coverage of malaria in Africa and the $3.5 million it received from an organization focused on fighting the disease.

And even do-gooders howled when the Gates Foundation Trust’s 2010 financial report showed it had $34 million of stock holdings in Monsanto, Agent Orange contractor and scourge of small farmers in developing countries. (It has since sold all its shares.) Completing this virtuous circle, Monsanto already served as a founding sponsor of America’s Heartland, a nationally broadcast PBS show that “celebrates American agriculture” — a role the company now shares, albeit indirectly, with CropLife America, the trade association for manufacturers of pesticides and agricultural chemicals.

When Gates recently turned his attention to fixing the U.S. public-education system with charter schools, PBS, perhaps coincidentally, became the first network to air TED Talks — including one in which Gates discussed how our subpar system of teacher evaluations was “putting America’s global leadership at risk.” At the same time, NewsHour special reports have so brazenly favored charter schools as to alarm education activists.

One of these, the author and policy analyst Diane Ravitch, laments the lack of even-handed coverage.6 There are many philanthropists and politicians, she told me, who “think our public-education system stinks and that we should hand over all of the schools in the poorest neighborhoods to privately managed charters.” Yet they seldom note that on average, the charters don’t produce better test scores than their publicly funded counterparts. Shouldn’t a public-broadcasting system at least address these contradictions? “We’ve had public schools since the 1820s,” Ravitch added, “and we’ve never had a moment in history where the U.S. Department of Education and the big philanthropists together wanted to replace our public-school system with privately managed schools. It’s a whole new thing! And PBS doesn’t seem to be interested.” 7

Though they may upset some progressives with their deference to powerful underwriters intent on jazzing up the tatty old public-education system, Charlie Rose and the NewsHour gang fulfill an essential function for PBS: namely, they allow retirement-age viewers the opportunity to see themselves reflected on the screen. While other networks court the coveted eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic, PBS caters to seniors seeking the news of the day presented in a way that doesn’t raise their blood pressure.

My mother, who retired this summer, is the biggest PBS fan I know. Whenever I visit her back home in Chicago, I find her flipping between member station WTTW and the smaller PBS affiliate WYCC. Though she uses many PBS shows to combat her insomnia, she is particularly enamored of Check, Please!, which features Chicagoans eating at area restaurants, then engaging in a postprandial panel discussion. She also adores Charlie Rose, whose six-foot-three-inch frame and craggy profile rank him among her all-time favorite hunks, second only to Jeremy Irons.

At seventy-one, my mother is a little older than the median PBS prime-time viewer, who is sixty-two. But she is not nearly as old as some of the people WTTW trots out during pledge drives to watch Doo Wop. In this fund-raising staple, the revenants of rock ’n’ roll’s predecessor, decked out in sparkly evening wear, sing sixty-year-old hits, their ever-thinning ranks supplemented by new recruits trained in street-corner harmonies.

The program shows its elderly audience clapping deliriously, too thrilled by nostalgia to be self-conscious about the cameras circling their heads. The median age of those who donate to PBS isn’t available, but Doo Wop — and its sibling production, It’s Entertainment!, which features a chorus of comely, modestly dressed whippersnappers singing “Back Home in Derry” — should give some indication.

Pledge drives now take up as many as ten weeks of annual programming. Moyers decries these perennial tin-cup entreaties to the viewing audience. “Public television was meant to be transformational,” he told me, “not transactional. But pledge shows are all commodified. Studies have shown that the people who watch them are not regular viewers of public television — they watch so they can donate in exchange for premiums, not to support ongoing programs.”8 The more pressure PBS applies to its deep-pocketed viewership, the more that viewership will skew toward the AARP demographic.9

Yet the powers that be at PBS have not given up entirely on the dream of attracting a youthful audience. They have seen the BBC import Downton Abbey bring in a horde of younger viewers, as has Sherlock, with the strangely feline-faced Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. The executives are doing everything they can to hang on to this demographic.

To that end, they have launched a dedicated iPad app, a Masterpiece Theater Twitter feed, and PBS Digital Studios — a production arm that creates short videos designed to go viral, like a “remix” of Mister Rogers clips Auto-Tuned into a techno song. This last project was an enormous hit, racking up more than 10 million views on YouTube. The same team produces the YouTube-only Ideas Channel, with its bite-size videos on such decidedly unstuffy topics as “Why Do We Love Zombies?” and “Super Mario Brothers Is the World’s Greatest Piece of Surrealist Art.” Having noticed that the median viewer age for its online offerings is a relatively juvenile thirty-eight, the network has also tried to appeal to the House of Cards–besotted binge-watchers, releasing all fourteen hours of Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History in one fell swoop.

The ultimate goal: to rebrand creaky old PBS as a more erudite HBO. Local stations are in on it, too. KCET recently debuted Stand Up Planet, which taps into the comedy craze by spotlighting performers in India and South Africa who riff on what the show’s website calls “the toughest global-poverty issues.” (The winners, in keeping with our meritocratic universe, will be flown in for “the biggest night of their lives — performing in a Hollywood international-comedy showcase and television special.”) As PBS senior vice president and chief television-programming executive John Wilson told the New York Times: “Think of PBS and the local stations as premium television on the honors system.”

Well, that’s one way to think of it. Another way is the English way. As the director, writer, and producer Armando Iannucci put it in a 2012 British Academy Film Awards acceptance speech:

We jumped up and down with barely concealed patronizing glee that even a costume soap from us like Upstairs, Downstairs could be repackaged in America as Masterpiece Theatre. And we laughed, oh how we laughed, at their repeated attempts to take top-quality British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers and make a complete shredded turkey out of them.

It’s certainly tempting to leave PBS to its superannuated current-affairs hosts and its endless parade of reheated British dramas. Sure, WTTW may relegate stories about Chicago’s terrifying murder rate, plummeting housing market, rampant privatization, and abysmal public-school system to segments on Chicago Tonight, an astonishingly dry nightly news show — but is Check, Please! really hurting anyone?

Perhaps not. But there is an amorphous shame brought about by a national public-television network whose coverage is primarily dictated by its most well-heeled viewers.

“Night after night,” Moyers told me, “the realities of life for the vast majority of Americans rarely show up on public television — neither in its public-affairs programming nor its prime-time fare. There has been one documentary all year on the flailing middle class and the forgotten poor. Our Washington coverage, by design or not, serves up ’news’ the way the butler serves tea on Downton Abbey, so as not to disturb the master class. Even my friends at WETA, our flagship station in Washington, passed up the award-winning documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth to air instead another episode of Antiques Roadshow and a program about the British royal family. And PBS has commissioned a series for next year, using U.S. taxpayer funds, on the ‘great homes’ of Great Britain. Not on homelessness in America. Unbelievable!”

Wick Rowland was no more sanguine about the situation. The former CEO of Colorado Public Television, he started with PBS in the early 1970s as its first director of research, and since his retirement a few years ago, he has dedicated his time to speaking out against what he sees as the organization’s systemic deficiencies.

To some degree, Rowland blames these restrictions on limited resources. “Funding levels are so small,” he noted, and this perpetual starvation has put public-television functionaries into a state of what he calls “trained incapacity.” He also stressed that neither major political party has demonstrated a significant interest in growing public media or providing it with long-range funding. While Democratic administrations don’t use the extermination of PBS as a talking point, neither do they give it any more support than their Republican counterparts. So public broadcasting is kept on a short leash, its pauperized state made worse by bureaucratic infighting among PBS, CPB, and their affiliates.

“Public television is sort of like the global powers in 1984,” Rowland mused. “There were three great nation-states, and at any point in time, two of them were at war against the third. They kept shifting alliances. They were always in a state of alert, and that was used as the way of keeping everyone under the thumb.” Exactly who plays the role of Big Brother was something that Rowland kept to himself.

It’s one thing when PBS’s sectarian squabbling, self-defeating structure, and interdependence with major underwriters impair public programming. Sometimes, though, these deficiencies actually hurt real people.

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal were two such victims. The abrupt rejection of Citizen Koch had left the filmmakers discouraged and broke. “We were very thrilled to be partnered with public television,” Lessin told me. “It was a personal and professional blow to us, because we had a lot of money at stake.”

Independent documentary production, even in its highest stratum, is a shoestring affair. When ITVS reneged on its promised funding, Lessin and Deal were forced to postpone the film’s release. Although they had some prior experience with skittish backers — the pair were producers on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 when Disney Studios forced Miramax to drop it — they did not expect public television to pull the same stunt.

However surreal and damaging the experience had been, Lessin and Deal remained reluctant to speak up about it. “There were a lot of relationships at stake,” Lessin said. “They’re the gatekeepers to the largest television audience in the world.” In addition to Independent Lens, ITVS funnels documentaries to a number of PBS properties, including POV, Frontline, American Experience, and American Masters.

What finally pushed the two filmmakers over the edge was their treatment at the hands of the ITVS board of directors. “They blew us off for months,” Deal said. “They didn’t even take it seriously. These are colleagues of ours, fellow filmmakers. They know us and know who we are and what our goals are and that we have integrity.” None of which prevented the board members from stiff-arming the film.

Once the plight of Citizen Koch became common knowledge, Lessin and Deal started getting emails from other filmmakers who had suffered similar indignities at the hands of ITVS but hadn’t said a word. “They were really glad that we came forward,” Lessin said. “They didn’t want to risk their careers, they didn’t want to name names, but they were really glad that we did.”

One such filmmaker, Mohamed Ulad, had obtained an agreement from ITVS to fund and broadcast Hercules Versus Hermès, about an idyllic Moroccan beach menaced by the acquisitive land developer Patrick Guerrand-Hermès. The problem was that the developer used the considerable resources of his family business, the luxury giant Hermès, to sue Ulad and prevent the film from being shown. Although Hercules Versus Hermès had already been aired on a number of public-broadcasting networks the world over, including the BBC, the Americans eventually blinked. ITVS backpedaled on its earlier promise and refused to air the film.

The Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten faced a similar backlash over his 2009 feature Bananas!, which was funded partly by ITVS. The film follows a group of Nicaraguan workers who became sterile after years of pesticide exposure on a Dole plantation. The agribusiness conglomerate was unhappy and immediately launched a PR offensive to discredit the film.

By the time Gertten arrived at the Los Angeles International Film Festival to screen Bananas!, the festival’s employees and sponsors (including corporations and charitable foundations alike) had received threatening letters from Dole attorneys. The film was not technically censored. It was, however, shown in a remote location to an audience that was preemptively informed about the documentary’s “credibility issues.” ITVS officials reiterated their support for Gertten — avowals that he caught on film, since he was already shooting a rueful metafeature about the whole mess called Big Boys Gone Bananas. But soon after, he learned that ITVS had cut off its support.

“I got really confused,” Gertten said. “For a long time, I thought they [ITVS] were on my side. They’re nice people; they’re smart people. But they’re also political people.” Gertten won a subsequent defamation suit, and in the meantime Bananas! was shown widely on public-television stations throughout Europe and became a cause célèbre in Sweden, selling out screenings, winning awards, and inspiring calls for a nationwide Dole boycott. The film has yet to air on PBS.10

“Independent producers are like salmon returning to spawn and running into fish farms and dams along the way,” Bullert wearily concluded. “It takes a hell of a lot of effort to make a film and stay with it when there’s lack of financial support. You have to raise the money, produce the thing, get it out, and then work within the constraints that PBS has.” It’s an obstacle course that has defeated an increasing number of filmmakers, and discouraged many more from even starting controversial projects.

Not Ken Burns. Since The Brooklyn Bridge made its debut on PBS in 1981, the network has aired twenty-five projects by the soft-spoken, slow-panning king of documentary history. Burns has a dedicated page on the PBS website. He raises money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, CPB, and PBS, and a nonprofit called the Better Angels Society hits up wealthy individuals and private family foundations for additional funding, but his largest single underwriter is the Bank of America. His productivity, commitment, and fund-raising acumen have made him a huge presence in the world of public television. A friend who used to work at WGBH told me of a meeting at which station employees were shown a film of Burns rowing a kayak with a very determined look on his face, shot from multiple angles.

“God bless the Bank of America,” Burns told me in a phone call from his offices in New Hampshire. “They’re unafraid of controversy and tragedy.” At the time, he had ten fully funded, PBS-approved projects in the works, including The Address, about a group of learning-disabled children who had memorized the Gettysburg Address. He emphasized that as a filmmaker, he had always chosen his own subjects, from baseball to jazz to the Civil War, without any undue influence from his patrons.

Burns is a tireless advocate for PBS, appearing at congressional hearings, corporate fund-raisers, and even on the Web channel of the David Koch–funded Reason magazine. “This is an underfunded and much-maligned network,” he explained, “which often has to argue for its own survival. Yet it still manages to make the best children’s shows, the best science shows, the best nature shows, the best public-affairs shows — and, I’m told, the best history shows on the dial. I’m proud to be part of that. I’m honored to be included in the family.”

Perhaps Burns’s enthusiasm and optimism are entirely warranted. Perhaps PBS and CBP and their affiliated foot soldiers can still cut through the corporate noise and fiscal jitters and reclaim what public television was supposed to be in the first place — an arena for, in Moyers’s words, “seeing who we really are and what we want to be and debating how to make a civilization when we are being pulled and torn apart by the fierce polarizing issues of our time.”

But Brant Olson and his colleagues at Forecast the Facts are still waiting to be convinced. After the WGBH protest in October, the whole group was discouraged by the board’s stonewalling. “This isn’t about politics,” said Emily Southard, the organization’s campaign manager. “This is about the truth.”

Refusing to give up, they started a social-media campaign, chipping away at WGBH’s Facebook rating. They rented a billboard directly across from the WGBH complex in Boston to denounce David Koch, and projected koch free on various Boston landmark buildings. When the station hosted a climate-change panel in March, Forecast the Facts submitted questions about Koch’s presence on the board; a video of the event shows WGBH’s frantic efforts to keep the scientists from answering.

Then came the PBS annual meeting in May. The organization sent several operatives to try to deliver another 300,000 signatures at a WGBH breakfast. Southard was confident that such an enormous number would finally force the station’s hand. “They’d be ignoring the people who’d signed the petition,” she said. “PBS has a sterling reputation, and that should be important to them.”

But when Olson got up onstage to deliver the signatures, wave a banner, and yell into the microphone, the sound was immediately cut. Security chased him down and handcuffed him, even as a PBS staffer held up a notebook to block any photography. This time around, the social dilemma and the political pickle would not be clarified. He went out the same way he came in.

 is a contributing editor at The Baffler.

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October 2014

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