Woes of Public Broadcasting

By , University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a former news correspondent for ABC and CBS. He is writing a book on media literacy.

The United States government was empowered by the Communications Act of 1927 to oversee the public airwaves. The renewal of TV station licenses was to be based on the extent to which their programs served ``the public interest, convenience, and necessity.''

Government was careful not to place too fine a point on precisely how the above standard was to be applied. In the 60-year history of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), only a handful of licenses has ever been rescinded. But the standard served as a guardian of reasonable behavior and sensibility by the industry to the public trust.

Starting with the Reagan presidency, the federal government began to dilute the public-interest standard. Now, under the Clinton administration, it is virtually dead. Criteria by which the FCC could measure stations' service to the public interest were scrapped in the Reagan deregulation orgy of 1984. Three years later, the Reagan-controlled FCC expunged the so-called ``fairness doctrine,'' under which radio and TV stations were required to air contrasting points of view on controversial issues.

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Muzzled public TV

While the commercial sector was let off the fairness hook, in 1993 Senate conservatives imposed a chilling muzzle on the content of public television. They tied the funding of PBS to vague proofs that its programs adhere to criteria of ``objectivity and balance.'' At the same time, commercial station owners, freed from such a gag, hired talk show hosts, many of whom had no obligation to either fairness or truth. The right wing promptly politicized commercial talk radio. Rush Limbaugh, with his plethora of notorious factoids, along with G. Gordon Liddy and his ilk, now dominate an estimated 70 percent of the talk-show genre.

Though President Clinton has bemoaned sleaze on commercial TV, the administration has blown opportunities to resuscitate the public-interest standard. The Clinton FCC, still in thrall to the Reagan mystique of untrammeled competition, is in process of raising still further the limit on the number of stations a single owner can buy. This further exacerbates the galloping concentration of ownership in a business that monopolizes the serving of the nation's mind food.

Frequency auction funds

The administration is now misapplying the proceeds of lucrative auctions of public frequencies for commercial purposes. These auctions are raising huge amounts of cash from commercial companies that need the frequencies to expand pager and cellular phone services to a mushrooming commercial market. Three rounds of competitive bidding on narrowband pager frequencies have raised a total of $1.1 billion so far.

More than 70 companies will bid today in expanded auction on frequencies for portable telephone and personal-computer services spanning the entire country. This auction is expected to bring in the astounding sum of between $10 billion and $20 billion more. This is cash that could be dedicated to the upgrading and expansionof mass communications in the public sector. Instead, the funds are being deposited in the general fund of the US Treasury and applied to the huge federal deficit.

The federal budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been held to under $300 million, less than it takes to purchase a single commercial TV station in a major market. That amounts to 80 cents a head per American spent on television in the public interest, compared with $20 in Japan. PBS programmers remain bridled by those ``fairness and objectivity'' standards and buy cheaper British-made fare, while canceling the only America-produced dramatic series on the airwaves - a cultural scandal.

The congressional Democratic leadership, which fled under the withering anticulture, small-bore fire of the right, has abandoned the three-year forward-funding principle that for decades insulated public broadcasting from political interference. That ``heat shield'' must be restored. And, with several more frequency auctions slated for next year, dedicated funding from the windfalls can still be earmarked to provide sensible seeding for an invigorated public broadcasting system. It could help attract challenge grants from foundations and private sources to establish a national endowment for such expanded PBS educational efforts as ``Mathline'' and ``Ready to Learn.''

A portion of these funds dedicated to the national electronic information infrastructure would also permit Vice-President Gore to put more than inspiring words behind his vision of a 21st-century information system accessible to all, regardless of income.

Television is an educator

Some of the proceeds could also be earmarked for the upgrading of the public-access cable channels of communities, vulnerable as they are to the limited public spirit of cable companies. It could help put more low-power community TV and radio stations on the air. With 80 percent of Americans stating that most of what they know comes from TV, from whence is electronic enlightenment to come?

Other countries use public broadcasting as we use bridges, highways, libraries, parks, and other public amenities - to strengthen the public fabric. Their TV teaches the young, enlightens parents, and sustains cultural vigor and uniqueness.

We are, after all, not speaking of another billboard for the brand warfare of the nation's breweries, used-car lots, and the cosmetics trade. Television is the most powerful educational force in our daily lives. We face a mandate, either to resuscitate the public-interest standard in television, or to continue to succumb to ``air pollution'' and the exploitation of our children. Libertarian free-market sophistry can in no way justify the mind games of brewers, soapmakers, and toy producers.

The free market truly believes in competition, it should be willing to share a piece of the public air and cable with program sources wholly dedicated to the public interest - in Walter Lippmann's phrase, not to ``what will be most popular, but what is good.''

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