Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour series The Roosevelts is giving a big ratings boost to PBS. And even with George Will rather gently criticizing FDR, the show makes a persuasive argument for more government involvement in the lives of the nation’s citizens.
But PBS is not so sympathetic to New Deal policies that it would ever welcome the hatred of malefactors of great wealth. In fact, it has often caved to the wishes of rich conservatives, most notoriously when it pulled Citizen Koch, a public television documentary that took on the Koch brothers. David Koch sits on the board and helps fund PBS flagship station WGBH in Boston; last year, he noisily resigned from another flagship, WNET in New York, after a different Koch documentary squeaked through and aired.
In her fascinating piece, “PBS Self-Destructs: And what it means for viewers like you” in this month’s Harper’s (subscription required), Eugenia Williamson finds that PBS has been kowtowing to the right and the powers that be long before Nixon or Newt tried to defund it, or David Koch silenced it by funding it:
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter that the Republicans couldn’t defund PBS—they didn’t really need to. Twenty years on, the liberal bias they bemoaned has evaporated, if it ever existed to begin with. Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. This should surprise nobody who has taken a long, hard look at PBS’s institutional history. Yes, it’s tempting to view the last couple of decades as a discrete epoch of decline, with the network increasingly menaced by a cartoonish G.O.P. hit squad, helmed by Newt Gingrich as Snidely Whiplash. But the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start.
Much of it started with LBJ, who signed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) into being, but then punted:
Yet this spirit-enriching initiative hit some immediate procedural potholes. Johnson, responsible for choosing the corporation’s board members, neglected his task for months. Ostensibly this was due to some unfortunate developments in Vietnam—indeed, it was the height of the Tet Offensive. But John W. Macy Jr., whom Johnson appointed as CPB president, suspected other reasons for LBJ’s dithering. “The media and the academic community had increased the volume of their protest against the conduct of the war,” he wrote. “Would this extension of the media with federal backing add new sights and sounds of opposition?”
As it happened, it did.
Williamson follows up on the Citizen Koch incident with the grassroots climate-change group Forecast the Facts, which unsuccessfully tried to expel David Koch from the WGBH board:
Refusing to give up, they started a social-media campaign, chipping away at WGBH’s Facebook rating. They rented a billboard directly across from the WGBH complex in Boston to denounce David Koch, and projected KOCH FREE on various Boston landmark buildings. When the station hosted a climate-change panel in March, Forecast the Facts submitted questions about Koch’s presence on the board; a video of the event shows WGBH’s frantic efforts to keep the scientists from answering.
Then came the PBS annual meeting in May. The organization sent several operatives to try to deliver another 300,000 signatures at a WGBH breakfast. Southard was confident that such an enormous number would finally force the station’s hand. “They’d be ignoring the people who’d signed the petition,” she said. “PBS has a sterling reputation, and that should be important to them.”
But when [Forecast the Facts campaign director Brant] Olson got up onstage to deliver the signatures, wave a banner, and yell into the microphone, the sound was immediately cut. Security chased him down and handcuffed him, even as a PBS staffer held up a notebook to block any photography.