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How Do We Talk About It?


Crooks and Liars has a great clip up from the Senate hearings in 1971 when Nixon wanted to cut the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in half and Fred Rogers made an impassioned plea that won over his listeners.  It really stands as a great example of what we were talking about in the discussion of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm last week — a wonderful expression about an appropriate place for government to be involved, for society to be investing in the education, mental health and yes the much-vaunted "values" of the nation’s children.  I urge everyone to listen to it, it will give you goosebumps.

I’ve been reading Eric Boehlert’s book Lapdogs and one of the stories he puts together so well is that of Bush crony Kenneth Tomlinson’s steadfast attempts to dismantle and politicize the CPB.  Tomlinson was adamant that PBS was crawling with liberal bias, and his own emails to Paul Gigot indicated he felt the need for "our side" to get more air time.   He told Gigot that, "I deeply appreciate all that you will be doing.  I jut want to win!"

But no data supported Tomlinson’s allegations.  Most people associated PBS with educational, scientific and historical programming; only 6% said that the last program they watched was a news show. 

Says Boehlert:

For Tomlinson and administration aides who privately cheered him on, the most obvious obstacle to his public crusade against PBS’s alleged liberal bias was the polling Tomlinson’s CPB paid for in 2002 and 2003.  Conducted jointly by respeted Republican and Democratic firms that contacted 1,008 randomly selected participants from across the country, the polls showed not only that Americans held public broadcasting in extremely high regard, but the surveys also showed conclusively that the vast majority of Americans — both regular public broadcasting consumers as well as those who only occasionally sampled the programming — agreed the network did not have a problem with liberal tilt.


The poll results made a farce out of Tomlinson’s pronouncement about PBS nd NPR, undercutting any momentum he hoped to create  in moving public broadcasting to the right.  To combat that problem Tomlinson simply ignored the polling data, paid no attention to requests from his CPB embers who wanted the results widely promoted to the public, and when word of the results did get out Tomlinson did his best to denigrate the data. 

Tomlinson sat back and put up no fight when Congress tried to slash the funding for public broadcasting, despite the fact that he claimed he needed to fix the "liberal bias" in order to prevent such cuts:

In the end, the full Congress, by a vote of 284 to 140, agreed  to restore the deep cuts to public broadcasting, which accurately reflected the wishes of most Americans; CPB’s own polling showed that just 10 percent of Americans thought the federal government was spending "too much" on public broadcasting.  A separate 2005 Roper poll found that Americans believed PBS provided the second best use of tax dollars; only military defense was a better use of tax dollars.

I mentioned in the Before the Storm discussion that the extremists of the GOP have taken everybody’s experience standing in line at the DMV and extrapolated it to conclude that all government is bureaucratic, incompetent and does nothing that private industry cannot do better.  It’s the reasoning that makes Grover Norquist’s call for bathtub drowning sound good to people who aren’t thinking very deeply, or even at all.  One of the things that progressives must do is define the appropriate place for government in our lives, and I would argue that this should include protecting and promoting the public good of its citizenry, and staying out of their private decisions.  

Fred Rogers makes a very direct and compelling case for public funding of children’s shows and it serves as a great model for progressives/liberals as we try to learn how to clearly state what we believe in, what our "values" are and what we think the role of government should be.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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