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Poorly Aimed Salvo at PBS

THE effort among some conservatives to eliminate public television is heavy-handed and mean-spirited. Charging that the Public Broadcasting Service is elitist and too liberal, these conservatives want to rally United States senators either to eliminate the PBS budget, or hold the $24 million increase of federal funds the House has already authorized for 1994 - in effect torpedoing PBS.

Laurence Jarvik of the Heritage Foundation recently said, "What did the taxpayers get for their investment in 'Sesame Street'? A generation of kids who spray graffiti on the walls of New York City." Columnist George Will, also siding with some mythical taxpayer who is mad as heck at Big Bird and isn't going to take it anymore, calls PBS an "upper middle-class entitlement." PBS should be dispensed with in a fashion befitting the 1980s free-market cure-alls, says Mr. Will: "Sell it."

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If the multiplicity of voices and programs put together by PBS over 20 years could survive in a market where the sharp ax of profit is the main arbiter of merit, fine. But that's not likely.

We suspect it isn't the money that concerns people like Jarvik, Will, and Sen. Bob Dole. It is ideology - programming and news that often does, frankly, have a liberal worldview.

Yet conservatives do get PBS time - John McLaughlin, William F. Buckley Jr., Tony Brown, for example. Pat Buchanan made his name on PBS.

The common culture many conservatives want young people of all backgrounds to know is found on Masterpiece Theatre, which last week ran Kenneth Branagh's version of Shakespeare's "Henry V," and in science programs like Nova. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour offers serious news in a medium pushing "infotainment."

That's a lot of value for a modest public investment. Less than 20 percent of PBS funds come from direct federal grants.

Keep PBS. The answer to contrary views in a democracy is to enrich the debate, not end it.

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