Thursday, February 17, 2005

More on Buster and PBS

I suggested in this post yesterday that the Republican party is continuing its march to privatization through PBS. I based that on this post, a First Amendment Center consideration of the fallout from the Buster episode a few weeks back:
PBS claims it had already decided not to distribute the episode to its stations two hours before the letter arrived (a small number aired it anyway). But whatever the chronology, “Buster” and other children’s programs that receive federal grants are now on notice: Avoid including any family with two moms or dads, or risk losing your funding.

Just to make sure the message is heard loud and clear, last week the Department of Education disinvited Carol Greenwald, executive producer of “Buster,” from speaking at a conference on children’s TV. Since DOE is a major funder, this doesn’t bode well for the survival of the series.

The ripple effect may go beyond PBS. Broadcasting & Cable reports that DOE is now exploring ways to change the guidelines so that grants in the “Ready-To-Learn” program (which funds “Buster”) can go to commercial as well as noncommercial children’s programmers.

Today, we find some correlation for our claim. Pam cites a report from the NYT on PBS' struggles--and the resignation of its president, Pat Mitchell:
Conservatives have complained about Bill Moyers's news program (he has since retired from it) and about a recent children's program featuring a rabbit named Buster who visited a pair of lesbian parents.

After Education Secretary Margaret Spellings threatened to retract financing for that program - a controversy that some called Bustergate - Ms. Mitchell decided not to distribute it.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Mitchell, 62, said she had felt no pressure, either from inside her board or outside of PBS, to step aside.

She also said she had not been personally pressured to change programming by Republicans at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides federal money to the system. But she said her programmers had worked with their counterparts at the corporation, which is led by White House appointees, in developing several new shows, including a talk show for the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.

"They certainly want to make sure we are providing a balanced schedule," she said. "We believe we are. We check that with the people we report to - our member stations and the American public."

"Balanced schedule," my right nipple. That's this administration's code for ripping control away from liberals--or those they perceive as liberals.

The rest of the article is hardly reassuring:
Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat sponsoring the legislation along with Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, has called for the trust fund to be administered by an independent agency following the sort of procedures used by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Some critics, like Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, are reluctant to give PBS any independent endowment.

"They want to create an empire that does not have to answer to the Congress or the people," Mr. Graham said. "Conservatives do not want to give more tax dollars to television stations that attack their ideas."

Meaning they want the stations to answer to political pressure.

Norman Orenstein, a committee member who also sits on the PBS board, said Republicans on the committee believed that a trust fund could pay for socially useful programming.

"We're focusing on education and children and making the case that public broadcasting can do valuable things in a digital age that no one else can or will do," said Mr. Orenstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group.

But he did not expect the money to come easily.

"You couldn't have a tougher budget environment," Mr. Orenstein said, "and you're going to have vicious scrambling over discretionary domestic spending."

Referring to the recent programming incident, he said, "The timing couldn't have been worse on the Buster thing. This is not a time you want to be in the cross hairs."

PBS is also being criticized by others, like Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and a longtime advocate of more money for public television.

"I'm concerned that PBS is so desperate for funding and support from the Republican-dominated Congress that they're willing to sell their legacy," Mr. Chester said. "They could forgo their historic mandate to do cutting-edge programming and replace it with Bush-administration-friendly educational content."

And that, I think, is the point of this exercise: the public airwaves largely sold off to the highest bidders, and the remainder stripped of its independence and made subservient to the administration's political goals.

Which leaves some questions: is there anything this bunch won't politicize? Is there no limit to their search for power?

Update: this piece from TomPaine.com details a bit of how the privatization-moralization nexus works:
The sample in NCRP’s study also included many of the organizations that have been vociferously fighting against gay marriage rights, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Exodus International . These groups received approximately 10 percent of the total grant dollars in the report. Many of these organizations did their part to help mobilize voters to restrict gay marriage rights in a handful of states, as well as keep Bush in office. When amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit gay marriage was not mentioned as one of the president’s priorities for his second term, these organizations were apoplectic. Their very public anger got Bush to pledge during the State of the Union Address last week his support for a constitutional amendment “to protect the institution of marriage.”

During the 1990s, groups like those in the NCRP study usually could only rely on foundations and private individuals for financial support. Their ability to catch the ear of the White House or Congress was weak, at best. But in George W. Bush’s America, these organizations are tapping public coffers and influencing policy decisions like never before.

As insidious as demonizing gay people is—as well as most of the other items on the evangelical agenda—the real victims in this game are the nation’s poorest citizens, who are increasingly facing a no-win situation. One brand of Republican slashes taxes for the wealthiest Americans, forcing massive cuts in social services that low-income Americans need to survive. Then the faith-based crowd steps in, forcing down a little bit of Jesus with every sip of soup at the local homeless shelter.

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