THOSE of us who were underwhelmed by the social benefactions of the Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown "family values" debate in 1992 must steel ourselves. Previews of the 1996 election campaigns give every evidence that the issue of television and values will be demagogued again.
On the presidential stump in Ohio in April, Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas decried the commercial media's "destructive messages of casual violence and even more casual sex" as the great underminer of the country's "family values." He singled out TV as the prime malefactor, putting profit ahead of "common decency." But, shameless in his incongruity, Dole leads the charge to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting. A spokeswoman for Dole later told me the senator really meant to indict the movies, which he's since done.
The Christian Coalition lists the elimination of public broadcasting, along with the national endowments for the arts and humanities, as a plank in its newly publicized "Contract With the American Family." Why is this a religious issue, I asked coalition spokesman Mike Russell? His bill is long, but it boils down to "If [talk show host] Rush Limbaugh doesn't get a federal check, why should anybody else?" and "the liberal slant that one gets" from National Public Radio has "a direct impact on families." But aren't sleaze and violence the real "family" issue, and aren't those ingredients purveyed by commercial, not public, broadcasting? Yes. But "that's private enterprise, and that's what we support," he says.
The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) of Tupelo, Miss., also wants to liquidate public broadcasting and the two federal endowments. Yet, the AFA took a full-page ad in the New York Times last year assaulting "the violence and vulgarity" on commercial TV and launching a consumer boycott by name against two-dozen commercial sponsors of violent programming.
And, of course, rightist leaders embrace Rupert Murdoch of Fox Television, who is forgiven for having built the circulation of his London tabloid, the Sun, by putting nudes on Page 3, and whose Fox TV shows are hardly models of family virtue. This exercise in ideological contortion is perhaps the weakest link in the cosmological sophistry of the American right. But it is too politically risky for Dole and his legions to confront the inherent contradictions in the rightist line. Televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are watching.
Mr. Murdoch and his network competitors and their affiliated stations are the single-most-ponderous albatross that defenders of "family values" have to bear. But how can they preach the unblemished glories of private enterprise in beer cans, breakfast foods, and on the air, clasp commercial TV to their bosom, and still remain the defenders of American values, too? Their solution, an anatomically awkward stretch, is to resort to the oldest of political tricks: Find a scapegoat. In this case, the goat is federal support of the arts, the humanities, and high-quality television. That people are ready to decry a national government role in the arts while scrapping the very soul of a nation - its artists, ideas, and creators - is chilling.
Religionists on the right, rightly concerned about the crisis of the American character, whose own children teeth on "Sesame Street" and "Barney," should abandon their leaders' mindless mantras and join the defenders of public broadcasting. It provides high-quality children's TV; history, music, art, and science programs; documentaries and public affairs shows; and serious dramas. And they are all accessible and affordable, coast-to-coast, at the click of a TV remote.