Bush bashes PBS (again), and The New York Times helps

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

What a strange coincidence that the Bush administration recently submitted the largest funding cut ever proposed for public broadcasting, and next week, PBS' distinguished Frontline series will mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion by airing Bush's War, which PBS describes as television's definitive documentary analysis of the war. The program reportedly draws from 40 separate war-related Frontline reports aired over the last five years. I have not previewed the television event, but I doubt that Bush aides, not to mention most Americans, will draw much comfort from what they see.

What a strange coincidence that the Bush administration recently submitted the largest funding cut ever proposed for public broadcasting, and next week, PBS' distinguished Frontline series will mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion by airing Bush's War, which PBS describes as television's definitive documentary analysis of the war. The program reportedly draws from 40 separate war-related Frontline reports aired over the last five years. I have not previewed the television event, but I doubt that Bush aides, not to mention most Americans, will draw much comfort from what they see.

So, yes, the timing between the Frontline airing and the massive budget cuts is curious, but also accidental, since the Bush administration has been attacking PBS' funding for years, and in 2005 actually helped plot a public -- and bogus -- campaign to rid public broadcasting of its alleged liberal bias. And to be accurate, Bush now proposes to curb the funding set aside for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government-created umbrella organization that doles out tens of millions of dollars annually for public television and radio programming. Frontline, in fact, does not receive direct CPB funding.

Still, the juxtaposition of the White House's draconian cuts penciled in for PBS, just when the award-winning Frontline program aims its painstaking reporting at the Iraq war, remains a telling one. And it helps to remind us, as Bush prepares his final exit, just how contemptuous this president has been of journalism in general, and especially of the thoughtful, independent brand practiced at PBS.

So I understand why Bush takes cheap shots at PBS. But what's The New York Times' excuse?

If enacted, President Bush's budget proposal to Congress would reduce CPB's funding for 2009 and 2010 by 56 percent. Specifically, Bush proposes cutting half of the $400 million already appropriated for the CPB's 2009 budget, cut an additional $220 million slated for the next year, and then eliminate the entire $483 million appropriation for fiscal 2011. The CPB is usually financed three years ahead of time to insulate the system from politics, which, of course, is deeply ironic considering the never-ending game of politics Bush has played with the funding process.

That doesn't mean public broadcasting would automatically go dark. That's because stations have other funding sources, such as corporate underwriting, foundation grants, and donations from individual viewer and listeners. (About 15 percent of total PBS revenue comes from Congress via the CPB.) But the draconian cuts would make public broadcasting's task much more difficult and would especially sting outlets in rural locations that do not have as many alternate funding options and whose annual budget relies more heavily on the CPB's generosity.

Additionally, Bush would deny any funding for public radio and television's conversion from analog to digital broadcasting, a process that is federally mandated.

What makes Bush's swipe at public broadcasting so spiteful is that, thankfully, there's virtually no chance his cuts will be enacted in full. Bush is simply perpetuating this weird Beltway Kabuki dance where a Republican president, who has been incapable of tightening federal spending in any meaningful way, makes his annual decision that public broadcasting must shed huge portions of its budget in the name of trimming the federal budget. Then a bipartisan coalition forms within Congress to restore the funding cuts. Rather than call off this game after the fifth, sixth, or seventh year, Bush decided to up the stakes and take his biggest whack yet at public broadcasting.

The ritual is pointless and spiteful, but unfortunately, this year it picked up a quasi-endorsement from The New York Times in the form of a recent, above-the-fold cover piece in the newspaper's influential Sunday Arts & Leisure section headlined, "Is PBS Still Necessary?" The article, by writer-at-large Charles McGrath, echoed long-standing conservative talking points questioning the need for taxpayer-supported television since viewers today can choose from so many cable programs. "There are not only countless more channels to chose [sic] from now, but many offer the kind of stuff that in the past you could see only on public TV, and in at least some instances they do it better," he wrote.

There's certainly nothing improper about making that claim, as long as the argument is made well and made fairly. McGrath did neither. Instead, his one-sided piece, which included no original reporting and did not offer anyone from public broadcasting a chance to rebut his claim that it wasn't worth fighting Bush's latest funding cuts on PBS, really was a train wreck. There's no doubt that the Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt, should have addressed the journalistic deficiencies in the piece, which generated written responses from nearly 1,000 (mostly angry) Times readers. Consider the following:

  • The article was built on the false and elitist premise that everybody has cable television. Not true. Tens of millions of American either can't afford, or choose not to pay, the ballooning monthly fees required to receive cable television, which means all those wonderful niche programming outlets McGrath rhapsodized about (i.e. the Discovery Channel) are of no use to those people.
  • McGrath claimed there wasn't much need to fund public television because PBS' programming is no longer vibrant and it's losing its audience share. By contrast, McGrath compared PBS' programming woes to the vibrancy of National Public Radio, which McGrath stressed, was a "great[] success." But Bush wants to dismantle funding for both, regardless of whether they're successes or failures, so why the misleading comparison in the Times?
  • McGrath failed to note that public broadcasting costs less than $1 per person, that polling consistently indicates Americans think it's a great value. And the Times writer never suggested how that federal money could be better spent by the government. In other words, what was the explicit benefit of dismantling public broadcasting? McGrath never offered an answer.
  • The fact that McGrath actually compared the brief, 30-second corporate underwriting announcements that accompany some PBS programs to the 22 minutes of wall-to-wall commercials that fill up every cable television hour indicated how unserious his critique really was.
  • Nowhere in his critical examination of the PBS line-up did McGrath mention any of its extensive and award-winning children's and educational programming.
  • The patently contrarian piece was also at times distastefully flippant. Like when McGrath compared PBS on-air fundraisers to water-boarding, the torturous interrogation technique sometimes used on prisoners of war. Maybe it's just me, but I fail to see the humor.

The worse part though, came when McGrath addressed the news-gathering landscape:

If you're the sort of traditional PBS viewer who likes extended news broadcasts ... cable now offers channels devoted just to your interest. Cable is a little like the Internet in that respect: it siphons off the die-hards. Public television, meanwhile, more and more resembles everything else on TV.

According to McGrath, cable television's "extended news broadcasts" are now just like the news programs you see on PBS. Honestly, what cable feed is McGrath watching? Because it's certainly not the same one that beams CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News into my house around the clock. If McGrath's claim is that the cablers cover a lot of news, that is accurate, I suppose. But to claim there's no difference between CNN's The Situation Room or Fox News' Special Report and PBS' NewsHour is just silly. (MSNBC doesn't really have its own version of a nightly news program.) The first two, despite the occasional glimpse of intelligence on The Situation Room, really are relentlessly shallow in how they cover the news, as well as extraordinarily rigid in terms of the very narrow perimeter in which they dub events to be newsworthy.

But let's look beyond the evening newscasts and examine long-form news programs such as NOW and Bill Moyers Journal. McGrath didn't mention either of those stellar programs in his piece, but I'm assuming his claim that there's no difference between them and what you can find on cable still holds. Except that, of course, it's not accurate. Despite the fact CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News broadcast more than 2,000 hours each month, those PBS news programs -- broadcasting less than 10 hours each month, combined -- still manage to cover issues and topics, as well as conduct interviews with prominent guests, that the cable channels ignore.

For instance, here are descriptions of recent NOW installments, as taken from the program's website:

  • "Will a Bush Administration effort open thousands of acres of public land to private development?"
  • "How corporations are using the designation 'freelancer' to avoid paying benefits."
  • "A pioneering collaboration of Republicans and Democrats on the environment."
  • "How far will one oil company go to get the politics they want? A bribery scandal in Alaska."
  • "As millions of homeowners face foreclosure, NOW investigates sleazy tactics of [mortgage lenders]."
  • "A billionaire fights methamphetamine use in Montana."

Raise your hand if you've seen CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News devote significant chunks of uninterrupted air time in recent months to address those topics.

Meanwhile, over at Bill Moyers Journal, here's a look at some recent guest segments from the program's extended, insightful conservations regarding important topics of the day. In parentheses is the number of times that person has appeared anywhere on American television in the previous two years, according to Nexis:

  • "Historian Nell Irvin Painter examines what history reveals about the current state of inequality in America." (0)
  • "Sarah Chayes, author and former journalist who has been helping rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime, with a look at the front lines of America's war there." (3)
  • "Photographer Lori Grinker takes viewers to Amman, Jordan for a devastating look at the fate of Iraqis displaced by the conflict." (0)
  • "Does America's $9 trillion federal debt mean we are mortgaging our future and jeopardizing individual savings, healthcare, and retirement for generations to come? Bill Moyers gets a reality check from Public Agenda's Scott Bittle (1) and Jean Johnson (0), co-authors of Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis."
  • "Is it time to rewrite the Constitution? Perspective from the University of Texas Law School's Sanford Levinson, author of Our Undemocratic Constitution." (0)

Also note that the Journal's Rick Karr has been providing some of the most in-depth reporting on the FCC's continued efforts to help consolidate major media ownership in this country. That's a news topic that traditional media outlets absolutely refuse to cover.

I'm not suggesting public broadcasting practices some sort of divine version of journalism, nor that it's above reproach. In fact, as Media Matters for America has detailed here, here, here, and here, it most certainly is not. (And I still don't understand how this journalism embarrassment ever made it on-air at PBS.)

But it is the only brand of journalism in this country that relies on the government for its funding and, based on its outstanding work, public broadcasting most certainly deserves that support. It also deserves the respect of the Bush administration, not to mention The New York Times.

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