Patricia Mitchell is president and chief operating officer of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, and is today speaking at the National Press Club to, in the words of a Washington Times report, “remind journalists of the relevance of PBS.”
PBS and National Public Radio are, of course, relevant to their small but well-educated and affluent coterie of viewers and listeners, and they are certainly relevant to those who produce their shows, take their money or use them to promote their invariably politically correct causes, but their wider relevance in today’s world is questionable at best.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS were established in the ’60s because, as we were all told in those days, the airways were a vast “wasteland” dominated by cereal- and alcohol-hawking philistines who were force-feeding us meaningless programming with little real regard for our desires and intellectual needs. The ’60s answer to all of that was, of course, public money placed in the hands of our betters so that they raise our cultural consciousness while giving us access to the best thinking of the day.
Some curmudgeons at the time wondered at the wisdom in a free society of establishing a government-subsidized broadcast capability, but in those days government, the academy and those who knew better than we what we needed were all singing from pretty much the same sheet. They were all, shall we say, liberals, and they set about establishing the new creation in their own image.
The result was a loose network of radio and television stations capable of beaming classical music into the hollows of Appalachia and providing the likes of Bill Moyers a lifetime platform from which he and those with whom he agreed could lecture the rest of us on our moral, intellectual and political shortcomings. They were giving us what they were convinced we needed and since this was, after all, a public service, felt no guilt as they extracted tax monies from the treasury to do so.
But times have changed. When PBS began broadcasting, there were but three television alternatives and little discussion of issues on commercial radio, which was dominated in those days by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Paul Harvey. Their mission, as they saw it, was then to give us what Harvey would have called “the rest of the story.”
Now we have cable and hundreds of targeted outlets that appeal to the highbrow and the NASCAR fan, to the aficionado of British mysteries and news straight or slanted from the left or the right. We have liberal talk shows and conservative talk shows and can tune in to discussions of the eating habits of dinosaurs at virtually any hour of the day or night.
Advocates of public broadcasting used to ask, “If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?” If that question and the lack of a clear answer in the ’60s was enough to justify a public subsidy then, the answer today should be enough for Congress to end it as no longer justifiable, given the changed world in which we live.
And to top it all off, these same folks who have used our money to force-feed us their liberal view of the world for nearly 40 years are now concerned about political “interference” from a new Corporation for Public Broadcasting board chairman who thinks that some balance might be good for what ails them. They want an investigation because the liberals who run the place are supposed to be free of outside interference.
Their answer is a taxpayer-funded endowment that will free them of all restraints. Conservatives have what I think is a better idea. It is time to end the subsidy, which runs to more than $80 million a year, or more than $60 each for their listeners, and let them raise their own endowment, appoint their own board and learn to live in a world in which they must compete fairly with their competitors.
Since PBS commentators are fond of poking fun at Republicans for their apparent inability to cut federal spending now that they control both the White House and Congress, such a step would have the added benefit of giving these Republicans an opportunity to demonstrate that they can at least cut out spending on programs that are no longer relevant.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).