Once again, public television is in political trouble. Recent revelations that Corporation for Public Broadcasting chair Kenneth Tomlinson hired a consultant last year to track the guest list of Bill Moyers' PBS program "Now" and brought a Bush White House staffer on board to help draft guiding principles for the future of CPB are likely to produce weeks of headlines about conservative claims of bias in public television.
There is nothing new in Tomlinson's complaint against PBS. In fact, political conservatives have been targeting PBS for more than 20 years with a steady stream of public relations campaigns carefully designed to rein in what remains of public television's independence. Conservative charges in this week's New York Times story "Republican Chairman Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Biases" are eerily similar to those reported in the 1992 Times story "Conservatives Call for PBS To Go Private or Go Dark" and the 1986 Times story "Accused of Bias, PBS Plans a Policy Review."
But those who think that recent conservative claims provide any fresh evidence that PBS leans left are missing the point. The resurgence of charges of a liberal bias at PBS does more than undermine renewed efforts to provide stable public funding for public television. Stable public funding would help insulate public broadcasters from ideologically motivated political pressure-which is particularly important now that CPB, originally designed as a "heat shield" from political pressure, has become one of the principal sources of such political pressure. What's more, this on-again, off-again controversy directs public attention away from the far more consequential development of a market-savvy, "new PBS."
This new PBS is positioning itself to be a modern media enterprise for the 21st century. However, even as PBS tries to define its niche in the new media landscape, there are plenty of longstanding questions about public television's identity that need to be tackled head-on. For starters, public broadcasters have always waffled about what it means to be public. And, now more than ever, the meaning of non-commercial broadcasting needs to be re-examined.
Most fundamentally, our public broadcasting system still has to grapple with how it can fulfill its founding mission-to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity." With the airwaves more cluttered and more commercial, and with the public fragmenting into bite-sized demographically-specific audience segments, public television's mission to provide free, universally accessible programming that is diverse and innovative may be even more valuable than ever before. In an increasingly commercialized media world, the past decade's expansion in television channel capacity and the explosion of the World Wide Web, paradoxically, only reinforce the need for the kind of citizen-oriented, non-commercial media that public broadcasting can be.
Contrary to the claims of conservative critics, scholarly research on PBS shows that public television is not a haven for alternative perspectives, but is looking more and more like its commercial counterparts. Public television's public affairs programs include a remarkably narrow range of sources and experts. It is particularly noteworthy that stories about the economy are organized around the views and activities of corporate actors and investors. Indeed, concerns of the corporate and investment communities are the principal frame for most economic coverage on public television, making the perspectives and experiences of citizens, workers, and consumers seem tangential to the real economic news.
Instead of wide-ranging debates, the kinds that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, public television provides programs that are populated by the standard set of elite news sources. Whether it is corporate sources (talking about stock prices) or government officials and Washington journalists (talking about political strategy), public television offers the same kind of discussions, and a similar brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television.
This insider orientation makes it hard to identify what, outside of the one-hour length of the evening news and the documentary format, defines public television as innovative, independent, or alternative. Given the continuing growth of cable programs that feature a now-standard set of pundits and insiders carrying on familiar and sometimes overheated arguments, public television's elite-oriented discussions may have a difficult time engaging viewers because they are a toned-down version of the same format.
Rather than imitating their competitors by becoming more entertainment-oriented, or satisfying conservatives at CPB by avoiding perspectives from outside of a narrow consensus, public television can engage citizens by developing public affairs programs that are both substantive and distinctive, broadening the discourse beyond traditional elite voices, and making public television a more genuinely public institution. In the digital age, despite the temptations of commercialization, public television can be a valuable citizen resource if its leadership takes seriously its founding mission to broadcast programs that include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue, and welcome controversy. It is this kind of independent, non-commercial public television that the public deserves.
William Hoynes is Professor of Sociology and Director of Media Studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he teaches courses on media, culture, and social theory. He is author or co-author of several books about the contemporary U.S. media industry, including Public Television for Sale (Westview Press) and (with David Croteau), The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (Pine Forge Press).