PRESIDENTS Nixon, Reagan, and Bush wanted to ''zero out'' public broadcasting. Now, it tops the hit list of the Grinchniks in the 104th Congress. Behind the smokescreen about left-wing elitism, bias, and all the rest, is a shell game. The cash-and-carry wing of the Republican Party really wants to make it ''a private business,'' strip off the assets ''that make money,'' and gag the rest. In other words, convert it to more of what we already have.
Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, assures us that the ''public service nature'' of the service would remain. Is that so? A tour of the cultural desert of America's commercial broadcasters hardly reassures us. At risk is the only oasis of culturally rich, high-quality radio and TV on the airwaves. The chutzpah of making the ''vast wasteland'' vaster still is not ''fiscal conservatism'' but covetousness and mind control.
There are only 351 public television stations and 629 public radio stations in the US, compared with nearly 10,000 private ones. The total federal operating budget for a year for The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is an already inadequate $285 million for fiscal 1995. The average prime-time rating of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programming is some 2 million homes, 13 percent of the reach of typical prime-time sitcom-ery. But what it airs is not limited to what is deemed profitable.
While some accuse PBS and National Public Radio (NPR) of seething with leftist sedition underwritten by federal pork, who pays for the huge piece of the broadcast spectrum saturated with ''right-think''? It includes some 70 percent of the sponsored talk-show hosts on commercial radio. On cable are Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the National Empowerment Television (NET), known in Washington as ''Newt's network,'' on which he issued his ''zero out'' manifesto. Another politicized
channel, the Conservative Television Cable Network, airs in 1996.
Contributions to NET's annual budget are a total write-off on federal income taxes. This includes the $125,000 that Speaker Newt Gingrich himself gave in 1994. NET is registered as a nonprofit organization, even though it also runs commercial spots. Advertising dollars spent on NET and CBN -- in fact, on all of commercial radio and television -- are deductible from sponsors' taxes as a business expense, buried in the cost of what we consumers buy.
Is public broadcasting elitist and undemocratic? Ironically, Senator Pressler actually complained in a recent interview that the only hearing he could get on the air was on NPR. Forty million Americans watch PBS and listen to NPR weekly. Nearly 7 million subscribed some $390 million of their hard-earned cash (also tax deductible) to public stations in 1993, more than matching the federal subsidy.
If Pressler and Mr. Gingrich sell off PBS, they will unplug 24 million children aged 2 to 11 in 40 percent of TV households from Barney, the Cookie Monster, and Carmen Sandiego, which, they argue, ought to be sold off because they have enjoyed financial success. ''Barney'' and ''Sesame Street'' were actually turned down by commercial networks before PBS gave them a home.
Pressler, who complains about the ''liberal twist on everything'' on PBS, including Ken Burns's documentary series ''Baseball,'' wants us to embrace his twist on things: ''Let's face it: For too long, these guys in public broadcasting have told people their interpretation of the news and what's going on in the country. They're startled when a Rush Limbaugh comes along and all of a sudden people are thirsty for the truth.''
George Orwell wrote of the tele-controlled state in ''1984'': ''What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. What happens in the mind, truly happens.'' We're not speaking of cars or soft-drink sales here, but mind food. More than 80 percent of Americans surveyed said most of what they know about their world comes from television.
Public broadcasting, then, is really about power. It is a power struggle for the most powerful human force in our daily lives, TV. Interests that control the screen in our telecentric epoch are given power to shape what we think, believe, and do.
The chilling thing is that chairman Pressler now has oversight not only of public broadcasting, but also commercial broadcasting and cable, the regulatory machinery of the Federal Communications Commission, and the drafting of the new telecommunica- tions bill affecting access to the information superhighway.
We now are told that Pressler played broker with Bell-Atlantic, which says that it and other ''baby Bell'' telephone companies would be glad to replace the federal role and become a partner with public TV. Nothing is said about radio. Jamie Kellner, president of the fledgling new Warner Brothers Network, says that he and rival United Paramount would like pieces of prime time on PBS stations to air their programs. Both desperately need affiliates to remain viable.
Among the critical questions:
*Do we really require still-more-privatized TV served up by media conglomerates who already dominate the broadcast and cable universe?
*Are the arts the sole trust of Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, and the Heritage Foundation? The Librarian emeritus of the Library of Congress, historian Daniel Boorstin, declared the arts to be a ''public trust . A free society is a society of creative chaos. And that, I think, is something worth celebrating and recognizing.''
*Is the business of broadcasting solely a business, or does it also serve the public interest, cultural enlightenment, democracy, diversity, and choice, as the Communications Act and the federal public-broadcasting charter hold? Britain's Conservative Party does not speak of ''zeroing out'' the BBC; Canadians aren't ditching the CBC; Japanese are keeping the NHK.
It is clearly time for Americans to tell the cash-and-carry right what TV ought to be about in a free-thinking America.