How PBS Lost the Public

America’s PBS has long since compromised its journalistic integrity to deflect political and financial pressure from the Right. But assaults on public broadcasting in Greece and other countries are provoking outrage and resistance from the public, reports Danny Schechter.

By Danny Schechter

It’s hard for me to feel sorry about the travails of the PBS “News Hour” where bland has been beautiful for years and an obsessive loyalty to mechanistic balance — always tilting right — has been in command for decades.

The news on PBS survived all these many years because of lavish funding from major corporate sponsors who felt comfortable with its stuffy and unthreatening approach.

In the years when the initials PBS were jokingly known as the “Petroleum Broadcasting System” because of all the backing from oil giants, the then “McNeil-Lehrer Report” went from a half-hour to an hour. At that time, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon of a loyal  listener asking, “wasn’t it always an hour?” – a comment on its frequently ponderous presentation.

The latest news about the “News Hour” in the New York Times, the program’s favorite journalistic source which it always sought to emulate, was not good for the PBS fixture:

“WASHINGTON — The ‘PBS NewsHour,’ the signature nightly newscast on public television, is planning its first significant round of layoffs in nearly two decades.

”Because of declines in support from corporate sponsors, the show’s producer, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, will close the two offices it has outside of the Washington area — in Denver and San Francisco — and lay off most of the employees there. The company, which is based in Arlington, Va. will also eliminate several of what it calls ‘noncritical production positions’ at its main office.”

The Times reported, “the production company was facing a shortfall of up to $7 million, a quarter of its $28 million overall budget.”

Actually, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions was privatized long ago when it was bought by rightwing cable mogul John Malone, once known as the “Darth Vader” of the industry. Lehrer and McNeil were beneficiaries of the deal, cashing in on public television for private ends.

When the “PBS NewsHour” takes a deep hit, you know other broadcasters will feel more pain as is the case in Greece where the whole public broadcasting system is being phased out thanks to the draconian austerity policies imposed on the country after it couldn’t pay the money it owes to U.S.-based hedge funds.

Reuters reports: “Greece’s government faced an internal revolt and public outrage on Wednesday over the sudden closure of state broadcaster ERT, hours after the humiliation of seeing its bourse downgraded to emerging market status.

“The public broadcaster was yanked off air just hours after the shutdown was announced in what the government said was a temporary measure to staunch an ‘incredible waste’ of taxpayers’ money prior to its relaunch as a slimmed-down station.

“Labor unions called a 24-hour national work stoppage for Thursday and journalists went on an open-ended strike, forcing a news blackout on privately owned television and newspapers.

“‘The strike will only end when the government takes back this coup d’etat which gags information,’ the ESIEA union said.

“Some ERT journalists occupied the broadcaster’s building in defiance of government orders and broadcasted over the Internet, showing somber newscasters deploring the shutdown and replaying images of thousands gathered outside to protest.

“ERT’s reporters from as far away as Australia appeared on air to describe the outrage of local Greek communities. “‘It is our only link with our homeland,’ said Odysseas Mandeakis, president of the Greek community in Zambia.’”

It is doubtful that unions, employees and viewers would take similar action to save a PBS that has long served an upscale elite audience and is “public” in name only.

After years of battling for more fairness and courage on PBS, media activists, documentary-makers and people’s groups set up alternatives like Link TV, Free Speech TV and Democracy Now. I started my TV career in public broadcasting in Boston as a news reporter. When the public-broadcasting station WGBH came under pressure from commercial broadcasters for competing with them, it killed its 10 o’clock news show.

Then as an independent producer at Globalvision, we were never able to get PBS to distribute our two pioneering weekly series, “South Africa Now,” and “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television.” They were offended by its “organizing principle.” PBS turned “Rights & Wrongs” down even though it was hosted by public television’s then most respected correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

TV critic Marvin Kitman asked, “Does that mean that if it was balanced – for torture and against torture — they would carry it? In Norway, Sweden and on the BBC, they think the show is apolitical. Here they consider it ultra-leftist.”

The destruction of Greek Public Television can easily lead to an assault on other public broadcasters by governments that have terribly mismanaged their economies and are now looking for scapegoats. In Greece, the problem has been compounded by the fact that the IMF that was supposed to save the Greek economy now admits it made major mistakes and caused some of the economic misery the country is facing.

And so, a media outlet that has been covering the crisis has now become central to it – as broadcasters Europe-wide and viewers in Greece express solidarity.

If ERT goes down without a fight today, others will follow tomorrow.

Anastasia Zigou, a member of Strike Struggle, a group formed by ERT journalists said:

“Many of us haven’t slept for 48 hours, but we won’t give in. We are sustained by the huge response we’ve had from citizens, not only here but at local radio stations all over the country.

“There have been people in tears at local radio stations in border regions – in Crete, in Samos, in Thrace. In those areas, ERT was the only Greek language radio you could hear, and the signals of other TV stations are weak too.

“Without ERT they feel cut off from the metropolis. But it’s much more than that, more than the firing of 2,600 workers. The sudden, undemocratic closure of a public broadcaster was a kind of coup. This isn’t a private station that someone can just decide to close. This doesn’t happen in democratic countries.”

She added this appeal: “We need solidarity from around the world, not just from fellow journalists and unions but from ordinary citizens. This matters to everyone.”

News Dissector Danny Schechter edts Mediachannel.org and blogs at News Dissector.net. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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3 comments on “How PBS Lost the Public

  1. Hillary on said:

    “PBS “News Hour” where bland has been beautiful for years”
    .
    Excellent appraisal of PBS which also applies to most MSM.
    .
    Never a genuine spokesperson for an opposing viewpoint .

  2. William on said:

    PBS news is worse than MSN because those who consider themselves “liberal” regard PBS as “liberal.” Which is a huge coup for the corporate, neo-conservative, and religious right which can thrust their views into the more open-minded of listeners. If the Republican leadership had any sense, they would back PBS funding to the hilt, as it is the most effective stealth propoganda they never knew they had.

    • gregorylkruse on said:

      Good point on Republicans supporting PBS funding, just as they should be really liking Obama.