Thursday, August 19, 2004

Alterman to PBS: Go Tucker Yourself

Last week I posted an e-mail from the Faithful Correspondent wherein she excoriated PBS and Washington Week for becoming toadys of the right. She wondered if anyone else of the media watchdog brigade had noticed this lurch. Thanks to a heads-up from Island Dave, I found this article by Eric Alterman that addresses the issue.

The far right’s decades-long campaign to falsely brand PBS a leftist conspiracy–one that apparently included giving shows to such commies as William F. Buckley, Louis Rukeyser, Ben Wattenberg and Fortune magazine–has really hit pay dirt this year, first in creating a show around CNN’s conservative talking head Tucker Carlson, and now, far more egregiously, in creating a program for the extremist editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson is a nice guy and among the least offensive of contemporary conservative pundits. Unfortunately, that is damn faint praise indeed. In recent weeks, the purposely inflammatory demagogy of PBS’s newest host has included a description of John Edwards as “specializing in Jacuzzi cases,” owing to the lawyer’s successful representation of a small child who saw her intestines sucked out inside a wading pool. Carlson has compared the Democratic Party’s efforts to keep track of its own racial data to those of Gestapo head and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and he accused John Kerry of demanding that “dark skinned foreigners from the Middle East fight our war for us.” No less odiously, he defended GOP smear tactics against the legless Democratic Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, who was linked with Osama bin Laden in one of the most scurrilous campaigns of the past century.

Still, the insult of throwing up Carlson to quiet the whining of crybaby conservatives pales in comparison to the injury of offering up millions of dollars in taxpayer and viewer-donated resources of our public broadcasting service to the far-right ideologues behind the Journal Editorial Report. Short of turning the broadcast day over to Rush Limbaugh or Richard Mellon Scaife, it’s difficult to imagine a more calculated effort to undermine PBS’s intended mission of providing alternative programming than this subsidy to a wealthy, conservative corporation to produce yet another right-wing cable chat show.


Given the right’s domination of television talk shows and its already strong representation on public broadcasting, the only imaginable explanation for the decision to put PBS resources in the hands of well-financed, well-distributed, unabashedly partisan and journalistically challenged ideologues can be naked political pressure. As we have seen over the past three decades, the relentless conservative campaign to “work the refs” works. If liberals are to retain their voice in the public discourse, they had better find a way to let the pooh-bahs of PBS know exactly what they think of decisions like this one, and what they plan to do about it.

It’s becoming apparent that either PBS is trying to suck up to someone to protect their funding or there is some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting going on: perhaps some of the foundations that support public broadcasting are turning up the heat. Some have wondered if there were some conditions put on large bequests such as the billions from Joan Kroc’s estate: be “fair and balanced” or it’s aloha to the big bucks.

Some have dismissed this as just overheated passion in this election year – any time someone tries to give an objective point of view, they are labeled by one side or the other as being pawns of their opposite number. Even allowing for that, it’s still pretty obvious that something is going on at PBS and NPR: they’re going for “star power” instead of intelligence. Tucker Carlson is no Bill O’Reilly, but he’s no William F. Buckley, even if we excuse the excesses of Crossfire as being commercial cable TV entertainment. Putting him on the level of Charlie Rose or even Ben Wattenberg is indeed lowering the bar. And the last place you’d expect dumbing down would be on what we used to call “educational TV.”