the PBS gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, there would be no C-SPAN today. And long before the History, Nature and A&E cable channels, there was PBS programming on these subjects. But Ledbetter also shows that there has never really been much “public” in the Public Broadcasting System. Corporate control, indirect and invisible at first, has become increasingly blatant, to the point that, these days, the difference between advertising on commercial and public television or radio is more style than substance. Why dis the only public broadcasting system we have? Because they’re our damn airwaves. Every single station or network NBC, CBS, TNT, PBS, the whole alphabet soup operates over airwaves that belong, theoretically, to the American public. This resource, as vital as our land, water and air, has been leased, sold, and just plain given away to powerful hucksters and con-men. Public broadcasting could tell us this, could expose political rhetoric and hypocrisy. Instead, we have William F. Buckley and the McLaughlin idiots, and season after numbing season of BBC leftovers. Made Possible By… is worth reading, not because it traces the rise and fall of American public brdad casting, but because of what it has to say about the battle over ideas in this country. Consider: in 1995, American taxpayers spent $500 million to broadcast our culture and news to tens of millions of non-Americans via the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Liberty, and Radio and TV Marti to Cuba. Yet that same year Congress cut the budget for PBS to half that amount, leaving us paying, per citizen, $2 per citizen for broadcasts we can’t see, and $1 for those we can. If that comparison suggests that American public broadcasting has become domestic propaganda, it’s no coincidence. Only it’s not the “liberal” propaganda the right-wing loves to rant about in whippingboy targets, like a documentary about African-American gays but fundamental economic propaganda conceived, shaped, and paid for by corporate America. Consider the 1992 PBS broadcast of “The Machine That Changed The World,” a history of the computer funded by a $1.9 million grant by computer manufacturer Unisys. Or, more perniciously, Archer Daniel Midland’s underwriting of The McNeil/Lehrer Newshour. When ADM was accused of price-fixing in 1995, it was one of the top business-political stories of the year. Top everywhere but Newshour which waited months to cover the story, and then ran a one-paragraph item covering ADM’s countercharges. The growing stranglehold that ADM has on public-interest broadcasting was underlined recently when David Brinkley announced his new job, as a talking head for ADM infomercials. The howls of journalistic shame were puzzling, however, since Brinkley and his TV colleagues have been doing the same for ADM and GE, and Westinghouse, and Ted Turner, et al. indirectly, for years. Ledbetter’s detailed history of the origins and early years of public broadcasting sometimes feels like one of those ponderous PBS documentaries, more soporific than a glass of warm milk. But his close reading of the historical record provides an invaluable service in conclusively debunking the raft of conservative and right-wing rhetoric against public broadcasting over the years. Unfortunately for progressives, what Ledbetter lays painfully bare are the fundamental contradictions of public broadcasting in the world’s leading capitalist nation. The final chapter poses what is supposed to be the burning question about public broadcasting “Can it be saved?” but between stifling yawns, most Americans probably simply wonder, “Should it be saved?” Ledbetter answers an unequivocal “yes” to the latter, and a “maybe” to the former. Ledbetter cites the book’s “dozens of historical examples of educational and public television programming that have provocatively challenged status-quo thinking. That such programming has consistently produced calls for censorship or `balance’ only underscores its importance to genuine democratic debate.” Locking up his argument, Ledbetter brings in communications scholar Robert McChesney, who argues, “On occasion stories slip through and programs get produced [on public broadcasting] that would never clear a commercial hurdle. This is especially true on public radio and with some of the more progressive community stations that would suffer the most without any federal grant money. And this is precisely why it is so important for those who believe in journalism, free expression, and democracy to fight on behalf of public broadcasting.” Yes, of course and as much as I yell at the obsequious NPR reporting, I certainly shudder at the grim thought of a radio dial limited to commercial broadcasting’s pallid efforts at news coverage. And yet. Why do I feel like I did back in November 1996, when I was being asked to choose between Republican and Republican Lite for President? Most Americans voted with their feet for “None of the Above” that year, and a similar phenomenon is occurring as millions of Americans abandon the mainstream media for the Internet, a mimeographed newsletter, or a night at the local watering hole. “Beavis and Butthead” notwithstanding, Americans are not as stupid as GE and Newt Gingrich would like us to be. We don’t vote, because we have no choice; and we don’t watch or listen, because we know when we’re being lied to. Perhaps the most valuable and frightening aspect of Made Possible By… is Ledbetter’s documentation of the long record of attempts to subvert and control public television. Astonishingly, the book reveals that a quarter-century later, the full record of the Nixon White House’s actions remains hidden. More than 9,000 pages of PBS-related documents have vanished, according to Ledbetter, who says that this mysterious gap is just one of several he encountered at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project. “If these records are not available on a topic as relatively tepid as public broadcasting, the knowledge gap for subjects that truly vexed the administration Vietnam, Watergate, the Justice Department’s aborted antitrust inquiry into ITT are likely to be much wider.” Sounds like a perfect subject for a hardhitting public broadcasting documentary. Stay tuned but don’t hold your breath. 111 Austin writer Chris Garlock is the producer of Jim Hightower’s national radio show, broadcast from Threadgill’s World Headquarters in Austin. FEBRUARY 27, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25
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