Fix It, Don't Starve It

January 26, 1995|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Some conservatives are trying to ''zero out'' and ''privatize'' the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its grantee, the Public Broadcasting System, which receive 14 percent of their funds from the Feds. The grants help pay for many uncontroversial programs like ''The Three Tenors'' and ''Barney,'' as well as some controversial public affairs programs that conservatives say are egregiously tilted to the left.

The Zero Option is misguided. Conservatives favor capitalism. Conservatives generally think the media have a liberal bias. Conservatives think government can act when the free market doesn't. Conservatives favor conservatism. So conservatives should look at CPB/PBS and say: Fix it, don't starve it.

(I am personally involved. Disclaimer below.)

Where can independent television producers interested in public affairs commit capitalism, available to the whole public? In effect, only on PBS.

The three major television networks preach free speech. They buy independently produced sit-coms. But news and public-affairs programs are produced in-house by network news departments, which suffer from a liberal tilt. A recent survey showed that 100 percent of the network television campaign reports about Newt Gingrich were negative. Who did it? The three networks, not PBS. Thanks for the free speech.

(On cable television CNN, C-Span and CNBC offer more balanced fare, although they also take no outside productions.)

But on public TV most public-affairs programs are produced by private companies, funded by public or private sources -- including the ''MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,'' which could teach the networks what fair means.

Some conservatives say government shouldn't subsidize any television. But the liberal commercial networks get monopoly space on public airwaves for their stations -- for free. If these slots were auctioned at renewal times, billions would be added to the federal treasury.

This shouldn't mean much to conservatives if PBS was as left-wing as they say. The law authorizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting calls for ''balance.'' Until recently, I believe that mandate was unfulfilled, but a number of viewer surveys do not show the public sensing it, or bothered by it. ''Frontline'' and ''Point of View'' clearly had a lefty bias. On the other hand, legendary conservative William Buckley hosted ''Firing Line,'' and ''Wall Street Week's'' Louis Rukeyser is no liberal. Still, the conservative view was underrepresented and underfinanced by the system.

Why? Conservatives gravitate to business; liberals like the media. Few conservatives tried to produce public TV programs. The liberal Ford Foundation put up big bucks. Liberals see reality through a liberal lens. That's reflected in programming.

Serious change came in the early '90s; in 1993 Congress passed legislation requesting an examination of controversial programs. Somebody apparently got the message.

Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speech-writer, got funding for a series coming soon on PBS. Documentaries were commissioned from conservative Fred Barnes and almost-conservative Morton Kondracke. Hollywood director Lionel Chetwynd (''The Hanoi Hilton'') is preparing a series featuring Messrs. Barnes and Kondracke and Suzanne Garment of the not-liberal American Enterprise Institute. A special about the House of Gingrich will be hosted by conservative columnist Don Lambro; Michael Pack, a man with a conservative eye, will produce. Much more is in the pipeline. Try finding that on the major networks.

Corporation President Richard Carlson is a conservative who ran the Voice of America, appointed by Ronald Reagan. The new PBS president is Ervin Duggan. As an FCC commissioner (a Bush appointee), he criticized the perceived tilt at PBS. Now in charge, he pledges that PBS will be ''ideologically diverse.''

If privatized, without oversight, PBS might turn into a self-fulfilling conservative nightmare: a left-wing rogue network.

Now about me. I moderate and independently produce ''Think Tank,'' a weekly discussion program distributed by the American Program Service, a collegial competitor to PBS. The program is principally underwritten by the bio-tech company Amgen and receives no public funds. If CPB/PBS is de-funded and privatized, ''Think Tank'' will survive. In the past, I have received CPB grants and may try again, if CPB survives.

Disclaimer rendered. I still say: fix it, don't starve it.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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