US public broadcasting, target of Trump cuts, found its voice amid presidential scandal

March 20, 2017
Big Bird talks with Michelle Obama. Via Wikimedia Commons.

And then they came for Big Bird. They always do.

The much-discussed Trump federal budget proposal zeros-out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, both of which also support some public broadcast programming.

The yellow, feathered giant on the federal chopping block is hardly new. Many will recall it has happened with some regularity over recent decades during various Republican administrations or congressional majorities. What not everyone may realize is that the partisan threat to federal funding is at the core of public broadcasting’s origin story a half century ago—and that its first, and unlikely, prime-time stars won fame by allowing the most significant presidential scandal in our history to unfold right in America’s living rooms. In the months ahead, we’ll get to see whether this latest chapter in public broadcasting’s saga has a different ending with a President who was once his own kind of colorful TV character.

Perhaps it was inevitable that among the last “Great Society” programs enacted near the end of the Johnson administration, a fledgling public broadcasting system was bound to have trouble once Richard Nixon was sworn-in. But it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. When it was proposed by the 1967 Carnegie Commission, an essential recommendation was that public broadcasting not be subject to the unpredictability and political pressures inherent in the annual congressional budget process. But LBJ’s decision not to push for a dedicated, politically insulated funding source—like the kind of trust fund supported by an excise tax on television purchases that funded the BBC—meant the creation of a small but highly visible political football that has been kicked around Washington ever since. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established to provide a “heat shield” protecting stations and producers in the system from political pressures that could come with congressional appropriations—an approach that seemed especially wishful after Nixon took office.

Of course, every minute these days there’s a new article or online meme recalling Nixon’s bitter feud against the “liberal news media,” with prominent journalists on his ‘enemies list,’ threats to network broadcasts licenses, and more explicit attacks by his vice president, Spiro Agnew—with some vivid literary assistance from White House staffers Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire—in a campaign pitting their “silent majority” against the “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “effete impudent snobs” of the liberal establishment press.

Sure, it sounds almost lyrical compared to “enemies of the American people” and “fake news, failing New York Times” tweet storms. But while the ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats was not nearly as sharp as it has become in recent decades, the last years of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s were also a time of angry polarization across American society. In the media especially there was, as one famous book title put it “fear in the air” even before it was revealed that a sitting President had authorized illegal break-ins to discredit his enemies, from Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s gleaming new Watergate complex. Large anti-war protests around the nation gained intensity during Nixon’s first term. Then as now, conservatives believed the liberal press, led by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the network news, were biased in their coverage, whether against the Vietnam War or American patriotism itself.

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While networks ABC, NBC, and CBS certainly had to be concerned with their stations’ broadcast licenses, neither they nor other major news organizations depended directly on federal funding. A brand-new public broadcasting system—where there was already internal debate over whether its programming should even include political coverage and controversial documentaries alongside popular educational, cultural, and children’s shows—seemed to provide a much easier target. One irony was that federal funding for public television, with an emphasis on support for smaller local stations outside of major cities, was originally proposed at least in part to help shift the weight of programming control away from the perceived “liberal” cultural tastes and editorial biases of New York’s National Educational Television and its Ford Foundation funders who were resented by some local public broadcasters for dominating the national program schedule.

If one point of federal funding had been to nurture quality children’s shows that weren’t dependent on the commercial agendas of toy manufacturers and sugary cereal makers, it was also to ensure that outside funders with perceived political agendas would also not unduly intrude on local programming control. For their part, some progressive advocates worried that the insertion of federal funding would, at best, result in tame, unadventurous creative choices on the air and, at worst, an actual government propaganda network.

Despite the relatively small audiences involved, the Nixon White House was angered by public television’s hiring of one-time LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers and longtime Nixon antagonist Sander Vanocur from NBC News. In the early 1970s, a documentary called “Banks and the Poor” upset members of Congress and some members of public station boards around the country, which often included local bank executives. A last-minute cancellation of both a Woody Allen-produced political satire mocking Henry Kissinger and a journalistic segment on the irreverent NET-produced newsmagazine “Great American Dream Machine” about alleged FBI efforts to employ informants fomenting violence among anti-war protestors brought controversy from all sides. Those on the left cried censorship; those on the right saw yet more anti-government hit pieces.  Critics hadn’t invented the term “fake news” back then, but questions abounded about how public broadcasting should manage such tricky editorial judgments.

Some in the Nixon White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, who inherited the public broadcasting funding issue, held a principled view that while public television could certainly provide non-partisan “town meetings on the air” it was inevitably problematic to introduce taxpayer dollars into journalism. (They included a rising University of Virginia law professor named Nino Scalia and young staffer Brian Lamb, who went on to help the cable industry establish C-SPAN as one example of such civic broadcasting with industry rather than federal support.) But with goading from presidential aides like Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Colson, and Buchanan, a White House that publicly warned of the dangers of government control over public television programming itself tried to take control over that programming by threatening funding cuts.

The political battle continued even as a newly created Public Broadcasting Service (representing the hundreds of stations that received funding through the federally established CPB), struggled to protect both the system’s independence and its congressional appropriation by developing program standards and an editorial approach to political journalism that could not be predictably pigeonholed with liberal bias—a charge that the presence of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” on the national schedule did little to mitigate.

Among other things, they created what turned out to be short-lived news organization called “NPACT”—the National Public Affairs Center for Television—in Washington, with a sober Canadian broadcaster named Robert MacNeil joining Vanocur in coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign. The coverage sought to provide deeper reporting than the commercial network news, but also more political neutrality than the kind of documentaries that so often caused controversy for public broadcasters. President Nixon, who had long battled with Vanocur, had his own strong reaction to the new NPACT correspondent.  A “confidential, eyes only” memorandum from White House staff secretary Jon Huntsman to Haldeman and others said that news of Vanocur’s hiring “greatly disturbed the President who considered this the last straw. It was requested that all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately.” And it went on with a directive to “work this out so that the House Appropriations Committee gets the word.”

In the midst of the political fray, Dallas newspaper editor and local public television host Jim Lehrer was recruited to Washington to manage public affairs programming for PBS and provide journalistic credibility to the system. Months after Nixon’s landslide reelection, he teamed up with MacNeil for the first time in a then-novel prime-time programming idea from NPACT that probably helped save public broadcasting. They did it in the spring of 1973 by getting PBS to be the first network to agree to broadcast “gavel to gavel” coverage of the Senate Watergate Committee and, more importantly, the only national network to replay the dramatic hearings in prime time when most Americans in that pre-Internet, pre-DVR era could actually watch them.

The hearings quickly became both a ratings and fundraising sensation for PBS member stations across the country, while simultaneously playing a key role in the fall of a Nixon White House that had worked aggressively for years to cut federal funding for PBS. It was, as the late CBS newsman and Ford Foundation executive Fred Friendly put it, “a poetic symmetry.”

Then as now, the budget arithmetic is easy. CPB’s nearly $450 million a year is an infinitesimal part of a more than $4 trillion federal budget. Yet this modest sum continues to hold enormous symbolic value to some partisans. What’s notable is how, over the past half century, despite revolutionary changes in our media landscape, we are still having exactly the same basic debate over funding for public media; one that is largely unique to the US. The various Republican efforts to end such federal funding over this period have repeatedly failed because it always turns out that a majority of Americans, whatever their politics and whether they live in a red state or blue state, continue to both like and trust PBS and NPR for their quality educational, cultural, and public-affairs programming.

So Americans have consistently voted for Big Bird and the public investment needed to bring him to life. But will the outcome be any different this time around now that Sesame Street is itself a co-production of the private, for-profit HBO? While there’s never been a greater need for high quality journalism, the media world is fundamentally different now than it was in 1967. First cable networks and then the Internet brought about an explosion of options and voices beyond three broadcast networks and a handful of independent TV stations that existed then. We no longer face the technical scarcity inherent in a limited broadcast spectrum and the costly barriers to entry in owning a broadcast network as we did in 1967. Instead, we have a digital, social media environment that literally allows every individual—including the new President—to be the source of words, images, and video effectively broadcast to the entire world.

Yet the economics of quality content—whether children’s programs, coverage of City Hall or reporting from around the globe—is more challenging than ever. The fact is that the lion’s share of CPB funding today still largely goes to local stations across the system, many in “red states” and rural areas that are even more dependent on federal support for operating funds than their better-known big-city counterparts.  What’s more, not everyone can afford broadband, and many families still only watch broadcast television or listen to NPR over the air. So the digital marketplace of quality content isn’t equally open to all consumers.

That’s why so many essential institutions in our society, from libraries and museums to theater and opera, ballet, and modern dance, along with the nation’s extraordinary constellation of public and private universities, all exist outside the for-profit marketplace and receive various forms of federal, state, and local subsidy.  We have made a collective judgment that their missions are worthy of taxpayer support through NEA, NEH, and CPB despite the risks that come along with any source of funding, public or private. But in considering one more round in Republican efforts to end federal funding for public broadcasting, we should at least understand that the choice is far more ideological than fiscal.

And we should remember that when this debate was still brand new more than 40 years ago—thanks to a commitment to calm, thoughtful broadcast journalism about the basic institutions of our democracy—Richard Nixon was on the losing end of a reality show in which public television’s first great prime-time stars weren’t standing eight feet tall wearing yellow feathers. They were in business suits sitting at the witness table in the old Senate Caucus Room.

David M. Stone currently serves as a Senior Adviser to the President at Columbia University. His views are his own.