Keep public broadcasting from Gingrich ideologues

January 19, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- No one could reasonably argue that in a time of budget stringency the spending of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting System should be exempt from scrutiny. Perhaps we can no longer afford "Sesame Street" or "Mr. Rogers." Perhaps we don't need series like "The Civil War" or "Eye on the Prize."

But let's not kid the troops here. The attack on CPB by Newt Gingrich and his fellow travelers in the Republican Party has nothing to do with dollars -- the federal subsidy is less than the cost of a Stealth bomber -- and everything to do with ideology.

The conservatives have been complaining for years that public broadcasting, radio and television alike, has been slanted to the left.

The revealing indicator of Gingrich's attitude is his complaint that "a small group of elitists" are fighting to retain their hold on publicly financed radio and television programs.

The new speaker of the House seems to find "elitists" anywhere he finds those who disagree with doctrinaire conservatism on occasion.

We have to wonder if those "elitists" at the CPB are the same as the ones in the Washington press corps and, of course, the Democratic Party.

The notion of ruling "elitists" is, of course, part of Gingrich's thesis that there are such distinct groups he has been able to identify as "counterculture McGoverniks" and "normal Americans."

Those beyond the pale may be loyal Americans who pay their taxes and fight the wars but do not agree with the politics or values of the conservatives who now dominate the Republican Party and Congress.

In the cases of Gingrich and some of his allies, there also may be a regional or cultural resentment at work, as was the case a generation ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson used to complain bitterly about the Ivy Leaguers in the press and political community he thought were looking down their noses at him.

The complaint of the conservatives about public broadcasting has always been something of a puzzle.

But one explanation may be that public television and radio networks evoke their ire because they frequently offer programs dealing with the continuing problems in American society that liberals believe require governmental solutions.

There are also cases in which the personalities identified with public broadcasting -- Bill Moyers, for example -- seem to raise conservative hackles.

No one imagines that the rightist braying about CPB would be as loud if Rush Limbaugh, rather than Dan Schorr, was heard on "All Things Considered." The conservatives seem to forget that William F. Buckley Jr. has been a fixture on public television for years.

The danger in thinking in terms of "elitism" or "the counterculture" or "family values" or "normal Americans" in American politics is that it suggests that there are some people in our society who have the "right" answers and attitudes and some who do not.

And qualifying to be one of those who is "right" requires nothing more than winning an election and being certified as part of a majority.

We doubt, however, that most Americans look to politicians as exemplars of morality who can provide guidance on what their values should be.

More often, they are elected to do such things as providing for the national defense and picking up the trash twice a week.

If we need advice on values, there are people other than a Newt Gingrich -- or, for that matter, a Bill Clinton -- who can provide it.

Public broadcasting sometimes makes itself an easy target; there are PBS programs that are so precious they invite ridicule. The same can be said of the National Endowment for the Arts, another target of the newly ascendant Republican conservatives.

But that is not the same thing as saying there is no public purpose to be fulfilled by providing taxpayer funding for educational programs not available from any other source because they are unlikely to be a paying proposition for commercial sponsors.

And someone has to decide which programs are broadcast. In the eyes of Newt Gingrich and his allies, those decisions have been made by the wrong people.

But if they were being made by new people with impeccable conservative credentials, wouldn't we be creating a new "small group of elitists?"

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