Public Broadcasting under Fire

March 07, 1992

All the fuss over federal support for arts and culture is befitting an election year. First President Bush fired his chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts after GOP challenger Pat Buchanan threatened to make an issue out of "dirty art" in Southern primaries. Now the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports local public television and radio stations, is under attack.

The assault is the handiwork of conservative critics who want to eliminate funding for programs they dislike, such as National Public Radio's coverage last summer of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings, which included Anita Hill's charges of sexual harassment. Recently, the Buchanan campaign has taken to haranguing public television for a documentary about black homosexuals. Even the National Audubon Society has come in for a bashing for its televised special, "The New Range Wars," which angered Western ranchers.

Public television, whose most recognizable products include such programs as "Masterpiece Theater" and "Sesame Street," hardly seems a fruitful target for ideological attack. Yet CPB, like other federal agencies, depends on Congress for funds, and Republican critics are using the appropriation process to score partisan political points by beating up on programs they consider unworthy.

Conservatives frequently criticize the media for "liberal bias," but the charge begs the question of what "biases" public broadcasting ought to have. Congress created CPB to provide an alternative to commercial broadcasting, whose heavy reliance advertising revenues sharply limits the offerings it can provide. Public television and radio were supposed to be able to offer a much wider spectrum of programs precisely because they did not have to attract a mass audience in order to survive. The system hasn't always worked perfectly but its successes have outweighed its failures.

A democracy committed to supporting culture with public funds -- be it the "high" culture of opera or the "low" culture of television -- must reconcile itself to the fact that disputes are inevitable. Some politicians see this as a reason to cut off all public funding for arts and culture. That's shortsighted. Our institutions rest on principles of tolerance and respect for the rights of others to disagree. Millions of people have benefited from the diversity of perspectives made possible by public broadcasting. Is it sensible to destroy that achievement merely to satisfy the tiny minority that wants everybody to think alike?

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