Why pick on public television?

March 28, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- ACCEPTED: THAT "gays in the military" has now passed beyond any notion of fairness for homosexuals and has entered our common speech as a paradigm for a president's ideological stupidity.

Accepted: that the "New Republicans" in Congress genuinely care about culture, education, civic life and the devolution of power to the people.

Suggested: that the Republicans now have their "gays in the military" problem, and it is public television!

Why would I say something so outrageous? Because everything the Republicans say they stand for they are helping to throw away in this shortsighted, spiteful and stupid ideological stand.

The situation at this moment has yet to be resolved, but Republicans, led by Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., are intent upon cutting federal grants to public television, which receives 14 percent of its funding from the government. While the rest of public TV's money is raised privately, this cut would be sufficient (1) to eliminate virtually all seed money for new shows, and (2) kill many of the 1,000 small public TV and radio stations around the country.

What we have here are some curious goings-on. First of all, any fight against public television was nowhere to be found in the original Republican reformers' plans, and so therefore is not writ in stone. It came about accidentally, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked about it on "This Week With David Brinkley." But it then took on a spiteful life of its own, and Republicans got their dander up and made it into an anti-big government crusade.

Second, one can see constantly in their statements about public television that the Republicans' wrath is aimed at what they perceive to be liberal or leftist bias. But when you ask them what shows have irked them, they invariably point to some from the early '80s, when, indeed, there was some noticeable bias.

Today, the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the parent group for public radio and public television, is the talented and fair-minded Richard Carlson (a Republican, by the way). Mr. Carlson, formerly head of the Voice of America, has brought in noteworthy conservative political voices such as Tony Snow, Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes, and aired such outstanding television series as "Messengers From Moscow" (on which top Russians effectively confirmed the conservative line about the Soviet Union's intentions).

Third, the Republicans talk a great deal about the devolution of power to the American people -- and much of the time they are right. But public television already has devolved. Local stations have their own officers and boards. Out there, a viewer really can call and complain to local managers -- and be taken seriously.

Finally, the Republicans say, and they are substantially right, that it has been largely the Democrats over the past 30 years who have divorced morality from America's civic life. But now the Republicans want to take measures, in their will-to-destruction toward public television, to divorce it totally.

Among my homey little theories of life is one that says, "Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions." Translated from the Geyer, it means that we are hanging by a thread over a cultural chasm of anarchy and vulgarity so vast that it would be insanity to kill one light of hope we have for saving our culture. Commercial television in our times has passed from Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" of 40 years ago to a vast charnel house today.

(I must add here that I'm an occasional analyst on PBS' "Washington Week in Review." But I should also add that I'd write this exact same column were I not.)

It may be that, theoretically, a government should not run broadcasting systems; it may be, ideally, that free enterprise would do that better; it may even be that 10 or 15 years from now we will not need public television -- but surely that time is not now!

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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