Public TV and 'Elitism'

EVEN though we oppose efforts in Congress to cut or eliminate the $285 million in federal funds for public broadcasting, there are credible arguments for doing so. Volatile rhetoric about PBS as ''elitist,'' however, is not one of them.

There are three main arguments against federal funding: (1) the government does not have a role in supporting a public culture; (2) in an era of nearly 100 cable channels, PBS is redundant; (3) to balance the budget, even worthy subsidies must be cut. Our response is (1) that the federal government has an important, though limited, role in supporting the public culture; in a media-driven age, TV and radio are a part of the public square; (2) the PBS blend of cultural and educational offerings is unique in the marketplace and available to all; (3) removing federal funds to PBS hurts small public television and radio stations, who need it most.

What should trouble thinking people is the tone of the attack on PBS, the divisive flame-throwing against it as ''liberal'' and ''elite.'' Yes, to program opera, dance, theater, and classical music will mean PBS employs some individuals with cosmopolitan backgrounds. This is to the good; it is part of America. Yet PBS also shows ''This Old House,'' ''Yankee Workshop,'' and ''Austin City Limits,'' which speak to others. ''Firing Line'' is for conservatives. ''Wall Street Week'' is for investors. And so o n.

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Even Nielson ratings show that PBS is not a ''little sandbox for rich, upper-class people,'' as Speaker Newt Gingrich claims. Most donors are middle-class folks sending in $20 to $50 a year. Might it be more ''elitist'' to assume that every family can afford to pay $200 a year or more to receive cable TV?

For those who tout family values, the famous plays, debates, and educational programs on PBS compete well in promoting wholesome values against the onslaught of sex and violence elsewhere on TV. We know many parents who prefer Sesame Street for young children and programs like Ken Burns's ''Civil War'' series for older kids to the innuendo and disfunctional families displayed on the networks.

It should be said that The Christian Science Monitor produces public radio programs and in the past has applied for funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nonetheless, when funding for orchestras and nature programs and nonviolent children's shows is under attack, something must be said. It isn't PBS that should be defending itself. It is those who make such attacks.

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