PBS takes its case to Washington and to the media TURNED ON IN L.A. SPRING PREVIEW

January 05, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- It's poor, little, honest PBS vs. the big, bad, lying Newt Gingrich.

That's the way public television executives are trying to position themselves with the press here as they get set to lock horns with the new Congress for what appears to be literally the fight of their lives.

It was Day 1 of the Television Critics Winter Press Tour yesterday -- the annual January sales pitch by the industry for second-season shows -- and PBS was trotting out its new wares in press conferences and screenings just as it does every year. But, at some point in every session, the new shows were forgotten and all talk turned to the new Congress and Gingrich's call to "zero out" the $300 million a year in public funding for PBS.

Bill Moyers came to plug his special on violence in America, but he wound up charging that Gingrich is trying to kill PBS to advance the cable TV industry -- with whom Gingrich is in bed, according to Moyers.

Moyers based his claims on the fact that Gingrich has a cable TV show.

Even Julia Child, who came to promote a new cooking show, got into the act, saying those who call PBS elitist are elitists themselves, because they imply that less affluent people don't have any interest in "opera or culture."

But the main event was a late-afternoon press conference with Ervin S. Duggan, the president and CEO of PBS. Duggan didn't even bother trying to talk about the new shows. Instead, he went straight to a plea for help from the press in his battle with Gingrich.

"We are a small and vulnerable institution," Duggan said. "We do not have large amounts of political money to contribute. In fact, we have none. . . . "We do not have large batteries of lawyers and lobbyists to fight on our behalf. We have nothing to fight with but a sword called truth. And our strategy against this

attack will be to tell the truth and to present the facts."

Duggan played those same few Frank Capra notes throughout the press conference, but they didn't appear to be playing all that well.

Under questioning, he said well, actually, there were a few people on their way to lobby Congress on behalf of PBS. On Sunday, public television station executives from cities around the country will go to Washington in record numbers for a three-day meeting that will include exactly the kind of intensive lobbying Duggan said PBS can't afford to do. They are members of a group called the Organization of State Broadcast Executives. In fact, that group shares in public broadcasting funding.

"But I don't think any inside-the-Beltway lobbying strategy will be as effective as the voice of the American people who cherish PBS," said the former Federal Communications commissioner and longtime Washington insider.

It was nothing but inside-the-Beltway politics and political-speak from Duggan. At one point, he said how much he'd like to sit down and talk about PBS with Gingrich. But, asked if he was calling for a meeting, he said it wasn't his job to be a lobbyist. What Duggan mainly wanted was sympathy from the press and for it to take on Gingrich.

"No problem with PBS that has been talked about [by Gingrich] justifies a nuclear strike that would annihilate this public institution. No problem justifies a commercializing of the system," Duggan said.

"And let's strip away the euphemisms here," he continued. "The word 'privatizing' is a euphemism. Florence Nightingale leans over me, saying, 'We're going to privatize you. This will help you. You'll feel better.'

"But, then, the wig slips away, and I see the features of Dr. Kevorkian."

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