The far right’s decades-long campaign to falsely brand PBS a leftist conspiracy–one that apparently included giving shows to such commies as William F. Buckley, Louis Rukeyser, Ben Wattenberg and Fortune magazine–has really hit pay dirt this year, first in creating a show around CNN’s conservative talking head Tucker Carlson, and now, far more egregiously, in creating a program for the extremist editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.
Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson is a nice guy and among the least offensive of contemporary conservative pundits. Unfortunately, that is damn faint praise indeed. In recent weeks, the purposely inflammatory demagogy of PBS’s newest host has included a description of John Edwards as “specializing in Jacuzzi cases,” owing to the lawyer’s successful representation of a small child who saw her intestines sucked out inside a wading pool. Carlson has compared the Democratic Party’s efforts to keep track of its own racial data to those of Gestapo head and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and he accused John Kerry of demanding that “dark skinned foreigners from the Middle East fight our war for us.” No less odiously, he defended GOP smear tactics against the legless Democratic Vietnam veteran Max Cleland, who was linked with Osama bin Laden in one of the most scurrilous campaigns of the past century.
Still, the insult of throwing up Carlson to quiet the whining of crybaby conservatives pales in comparison to the injury of offering up millions of dollars in taxpayer and viewer-donated resources of our public broadcasting service to the far-right ideologues behind the Journal Editorial Report. Short of turning the broadcast day over to Rush Limbaugh or Richard Mellon Scaife, it’s difficult to imagine a more calculated effort to undermine PBS’s intended mission of providing alternative programming than this subsidy to a wealthy, conservative corporation to produce yet another right-wing cable chat show.
But ideology is only the half of it. I lack the space here to do justice to the many instances in which the Journal editors–who are responsible for producing what is, according to Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, “perhaps the most influential, most articulate, most ferocious opinion page in the country”–have trampled on the rules of basic journalistic fairness. In What Liberal Media? I describe numerous examples of the editors’ deliberately misleading their readers–even in some cases ignoring or contradicting the first-rate reporting of the paper’s news pages. The quality of the editorial page’s sourcing is of no apparent concern when an enemy is declared. Lyndon LaRouche’s minions were used as backup to spread false rumors about Michael Dukakis’s mental health. Known liars and thieves provided the grist for an endlessly spun web of fictional intrigue involving Bill Clinton’s alleged murder plots and drug-running in Arkansas.
In a lengthy examination in the Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman found six dozen examples of disputed Journal editorials and op-eds. She discovered that “on subjects ranging from lawyers, judges, and product liability suits to campus and social issues, a strong America, and of course, economics, we found a consistent pattern of incorrect facts, ignored or incomplete facts, missing facts, uncorroborated facts.” In many of these cases, the editors refused to print a correction, preferring to allow the aggrieved party to write a letter to the editor, which would be printed much later, and then let the reader decide whose version appeared more credible. Almost never does the paper correct the record or admit its errors.
Recently Peggy Noonan, who writes for the page, decided to return to her original job as a flack for the GOP. This is, in a way, unfortunate, as PBS viewers will be denied the entertainment value of her analysis, which has on occasion included anti-Communist magic dolphins sent by God to save Elián González and posthumously delivered sermons by the late Senator Paul Wellstone excoriating the mourners at his own funeral.
As I wrote in this space when CNBC ran its version of the same show–on a for-profit, conservative cable network, I might add–“To find the same combination of conviction, partisanship and ideological extremism on the far left, a network would need to convene a ’roundtable’ featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.” But perhaps what is most offensive about PBS’s decision to fund and broadcast Carlson (who already has a show on CNN five evenings a week) and the Journal editors (whose preaching is subsidized and distributed by the Dow Jones Corporation, whose profit last year topped $1.5 billion) is that it is being portrayed by its sponsor, New York’s WETA, as “balance” for the program Now With Bill Moyers. In fact, these conservative opinion programs are in no way comparable to Moyers’s show. Though Moyers is unarguably a liberal, his show is not a program of ideological advocacy but of public journalistic investigation. Its primary function is to air reports of corporate and governmental abuses that appear nowhere else in the media, and to explore all sides of contentious issues. When Moyers does an interview, you are just as likely to get a Robert Bartley, a Grover Norquist or a Paul Gigot as anyone on the liberal side of the aisle. When Moyers retires at the end of the year (at which time PBS will reduce the show to a half-hour), his chosen replacement will be David Brancaccio, a reporter who comes from that hotbed of anticapitalist agitation, NPR’s Marketplace. (Disclosure: Moyers and I are friends, and his patronage has helped me with my books on the media and democracy.)
Given the right’s domination of television talk shows and its already strong representation on public broadcasting, the only imaginable explanation for the decision to put PBS resources in the hands of well-financed, well-distributed, unabashedly partisan and journalistically challenged ideologues can be naked political pressure. As we have seen over the past three decades, the relentless conservative campaign to “work the refs” works. If liberals are to retain their voice in the public discourse, they had better find a way to let the pooh-bahs of PBS know exactly what they think of decisions like this one.