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The Public is Secondary


Across the country, PBS stations are in denial. And if we think the

programming they provide is worthy of the name "public television,"

then maybe we’re in denial, too.

Targeting an upscale audience, elaborate commercials are now routine on PBS

– but we’re supposed to look at them as "enhanced underwriter

credits."

Every weeknight, the crown jewel of PBS public affairs — "The NewsHour

With Jim Lehrer" — reaches several million American homes. The hour-long

show is probably the most influential news broadcast in the United States.

Sustained by big bucks from conglomerates in such industries as agribusiness and

insurance, the program rarely strays from conventional media wisdom. But we’re

supposed to view it as an excellent source of journalism.

Over the years, "public TV" has morphed into privatized television.

These days, PBS depends on funding from private firms and the Corporation for

Public Broadcasting. By now, only a veneer of public service remains, shiny and

thin.

With hundreds of PBS stations walking like ducks, talking like ducks and

quacking like ducks, we’d be ill-advised to believe that they’re really

fascinating aardvarks.

It didn’t have to be this way. During the 1960s, a lot of noncommercial

channels went on the air, under the moniker of "educational

television." The offerings were apt to be poorly produced and rather

boring, but the potential was apparent. After all, some public space was being

carved out of the commercialized TV terrain already known as "a vast

wasteland."

Gradually, money poured in and viewership climbed. More and more, programs on

PBS were similar to shows on avowedly commercial cable networks. Today, each PBS

affiliate is little more than another cable option — mocking the dream that

public TV could exist in fact as well as in name.

Seven years ago, professor William Hoynes of Vassar College took an in-depth

look at the content of public affairs shows on PBS stations. He found that those

programs were heavily reliant on a narrow range of sources from government and

the business sector.

Now, analyzing data from 75 separate programs during a two-week period in

late 1998, Hoynes has assessed recent trends. It turns out that in the media

world of PBS stations, things aren’t as bad as they used to be. They’re worse.

Adhering to an "insider orientation" is standard operating

procedure on PBS. Instead of "wide-ranging discussions and debates,"

Hoynes says, "public television provides programs that are populated by the

standard set of elite news sources."

The 1992 study and the latest one, both released by my associates at the

media watch group FAIR, present a grim and grimmer picture of the Public

Broadcasting Service. While corporate voices and business programs are all over

PBS, the general public is scarcely visible on a day-to-day basis.

For instance, the new study discovered:

"More than one-third of all on-camera sources — 36.3 percent — during

the two weeks studied were representatives of corporate America or Wall Street.

This almost doubled the percentage found in the 1992 study."

In sharp contrast, Americans in the broadly defined category of "citizen

activists" get scant representation on PBS, accounting for only 4.5 percent

of total sources. "For example, there is no regular labor voice in

discussions of the economy and no regular consumer perspective in debates about

anti-trust policy." Overall, citizen activists "appear with such

relative infrequency…that they cannot help but be marginal, if intriguing,

participants in the public discourse."

The study found that only 5.7 percent of the total sources on PBS were

members of the general public — down from 12 percent in 1992.

"This study reveals public TV’s programming to be little different in

substance than that on commercial TV," says Janine Jackson, program

director at FAIR. Her assessment is right on target: "In survival mode for

so long fending off conservative attacks, public television seems to have

forgotten its original mission to `help us see America whole, in all its

diversity’ and to be `a forum for controversy and debate.’"

The entire new study — "The Cost of Survival: Political Discourse and

the `New PBS’" — is on FAIR’s web site (www.fair.org) along with

supporting data.

Meanwhile, as we begin the second half of 1999, few things seem as

predictable as PBS, the public TV service that quacks like a duck and claims to

be a soaring eagle.

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Norman Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive

Media."

 

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