On Thursday, a divided federal appeals court overturned a previous ban on public broadcasting stations running political ads.

Well-meaning public-interest outfits such as Free Press quickly condemned the action, and urged the public to bring pressure on those broadcasters not to run the spots. As Free Press put it in an email to supporters:

The court said that permitting these sorts of ads would not threaten or undermine the educational nature of public broadcast stations.

But polluting public programming with misleading and negative ads is not in keeping with the original vision of noncommercial broadcasting. And it’s certainly not the solution to funding public media.

Many Americans turn to public TV or radio to escape the offensive political ads that have flooded commercial stations. Please join us and tell the leadership of PBS and NPR stations that they must reject political ads:

But here’s the sad truth: With a few notable exceptions, big public broadcasting (let us distinguish the national PBS/NPR from community-based entities) is a lot less educational than it would like us to believe. True, it contains “thought-provoking” material delivered by dulcet-toned broadcasters and a charming, southern-inflected host with lightly tousled hair, and people seemingly disagreeing in the politest of manners. But the content of these broadcasters is just about as influenced by commercial interests and dominant cliques as the more “vulgar” commercial broadcasters.

The Triumph of Operation Mockingbird

Public broadcasting, which largely targets an affluent, well-educated audience of liberal and progressive bent, is a powerful tool for shaping perceptions and convincing people to continue working within the system rather than fully appraising the corruption that undergirds that system. A brutally candid investigation of our country’s institutions and political/cultural leaders as they actually function would make affluent liberals much more uncomfortable. They’d have to examine the corporate, legal and academic networks of which they are a contented part. And they’d be forced to see that when liberals get into power, all too many end up serving corporate interests in ways that differ from conservatives more in style and tone than in profound shifts of policy and governance. (See a piece we did on this a while back, here.)

Public broadcasting regularly pulls its punches—and has gotten steadily worse in recent years. You can blame attacks from the Right, which periodically threaten to eliminate government support of PBS and NPR. But, in fact, public broadcasting has always been, to some extent, an arm of the establishment.

By creating an aura of thoughtfulness, it has essentially lulled the public into complacency. By its very existence, it has convinced us that dissent is not only welcomed but has a vigorous presence in the American conversation. By having hard-core corporate operatives gently debate tepid reformers, it has given us the façade of open discussion and probing inquiries. Which is why those oil companies, banks, and foundations set up by the very rich are so happy to underwrite all that good taste.

That’s not just crazy talk. The establishment has always understood that the way to control people in a democracy is through the media. In the 1950s, the CIA launched a super-secret program to flood media outlets with its operatives—Operation Mockingbird (if you have never heard of this, and find the notion far-fetched, walk back a few words and hit that link.) We were assured in 1976 (by none less than then-CIA director George H.W. Bush) that such operations had ceased—but even if we can believe that, the Establishment clearly has found other, more subtle ways to move public opinion in the direction it prefers.

The Mainstream Alternative

Free Press argues:

Many Americans turn to public TV or radio to escape the offensive political ads that have flooded commercial stations. Please join us and tell the leadership of PBS and NPR stations that they must reject political ads:

Americans originally turned to public tv and radio to escape all advertising and even a hint of corporate influence—though that line has long since been whittled away. The truth is, the sorts of people who watch public broadcasting are probably sophisticated enough not to be swayed by attack ads. But few are sophisticated enough to see the larger picture being assembled under their noses.

Take a minute and think hard about your favorite public radio or television shows. Culturally cool, Downton Abbey and even Prime Suspect, sure. Great pictures, great voices, great music. But, aside from the occasional Bill Moyers, do you see these news sources fully engaging the doubts and concerns that many of us feel about growing repression and oligarchical domination of our society, of crass commercialization and endless distraction of the sort described in Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle?

Ask any scholar or activist with out-of-the-mainstream ideas or sentiments how often public broadcasting invites them on. Look at which think tanks are featured, and ask yourself when was the last time you saw Dennis Kucinich…much less Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein. Far more likely you saw Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Far more likely you heard an assessment from a Wall Street Journal reporter than one from Mother Jones. Ironically, the Russian-government English-language channel RT is one place where Americans increasingly turn to hear voices (including this one) left out of the “Public Broadcasting” conversation.

As another media advocacy group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, wrote in 2005 (a key moment in the struggle over public broadcasting with the Bush Administration):

….amidst the clamor over “saving” PBS, more important questions remain overlooked: Is public broadcasting delivering on its promise? Do PBS and NPR really serve as a true alternative to commercial broadcasting? Does the CPB really, as its mission statement proclaims, “encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities”?

The honest answer to each of these questions is no. Over the years, FAIR’s studies have found a distinctly pro-establishment and pro-corporate tilt in PBS’s and NPR’s national news and public affairs programming (Extra!, 9–10/93, 9–10/99, 5–6/04). Though PBS is mandated to present a wider spectrum of opinion than for-profit media, it is often hard to distinguish the guest lists of public broadcasting’s programs from those of their commercial counterparts.

Want a silver lining? Perhaps if public broadcasting does start running offensively in-your-face political ads, the public will begin to realize just how limited, flat and…mainstream this purported alternative actually is.

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0 responses to “Will Political Ads Destroy Public Broadcasting’s “Uniqueness”?”

  1. Major Martin says:

    During the Bush II years, both NPR and CPB had former U.S. government propaganda administrators in top-level administrative positions (maybe they’re still there — I haven’t checked lately). So we should not be surprised that these organizations were so tame in coverage of war-related topics, especially the curious events of 9-11.

    I was astonished how brash these organizations were in listing their propaganda credentials — right on their official web pages! I guess they figured no one cared. 

    This was the last straw for me, though. I have not tuned in again since. I now refer to NPR as “National Propaganda Radio.”

    • Gobi says:

      Totally agree–I like your new name for NPR.
      It’s both propaganda stuff but also has degenerated into mindless trivia. Most of the time we are forced to hear 20-something women using emotive voices — squeaking or nattering on– about this ‘n that, when once upon a time, radio trained both women and men how to speak/communicate when broadcasting.
      The program content has also gone south, with added news on murders and endless repetitive Afghan war reports,  but rarely effective political discussions. “Fresh Air” is useless most of the time, as Terry G. loves to associate herself with mumbling, inarticulate pop muzak musicians & annoying actors and writers. “The Story” program on NPR is so lame one wonders why it has survived so long–maybe they needed filler.
      Every morning I try listening to NPR only to cut it off after 10 minutes.

    • Gobi says:

      breathy!  Well put! I’d add nasal to the voice afflictions ………………..

  2. brux says:

    I’m kind of amazed at the vitriol that is being aimed at PBS.  I think it is unwarranted, and the kind of rhetoric being used shows the kind of people who makes these charges.

    I am not really even sure these are real people, because real people have to believe in something.  Real people have to start somewhere, and these endless bickering, arguments about conspiracies don’t really do anyone any good.

    I remember JFK, MLK and RFK, and I believe they were not carried about they way we have been told, but that is all I know, and that is all I will ever be able to find out.  Sad but true, we have to move on.

    That means we have to find a way to exist without trying to find some absolute truth.  We need a distributed form of democratic government that does not require celebrities or heroes, or manufactured leaders.  Leaders let us down.  The people don’t and cannot know, so how can we have what we think of as democracy.

    These arguments will never produce anything good, they will never lead to any resolution.  How long is it going to go on.  We need to find a way to just bypass the people who use this kind of violence.

    The way we are controlled is by having stress and distractions piled on to us, the average people, from threats to survival and health care to endless nameless virtual threat distractions.  It de-focuses people and makes them stupid and ineffective, thus making them even more stressed, and even less likely to be able to get along with and co-operate with their fellow citizens.

    I want to know what happened with these crimes, but what is more important – to fix the country or to endlessly speculate about this stuff?

    • Ralph Crown says:

       To “fix the country,” we need to understand the real problems. What we see on TV is doctored, the way every reality show is doctored, to make it entertaining and to distract us. If you believe democracy works, when given a chance, then you have to guarantee election results and limit campaign spending. Few people are talking about those things, certainly not enough to make a difference.

      If you don’t think democracy works, the real struggle becomes, who makes the decisions? Are they accountable to anyone? What can you do when their decisions hurt you? That’s the real stress, knowing you’re powerless to defend yourself.

  3. zcopley says:

    The Petroleum Broadcast System (PBS).

  4. larale says:

    Go to fulldisclosure dot net and look up Saving the Public Access TV Channels in America.

  5. larale says:

    The real story is the total theft and destruction of true grassroots, local Public Access Channels across America. The Cable Cabal has been working behind the scenes to “buy” PEG Channels from corrupt local governments at around $30-$40,000 per channel and then resell them for %30-$40,000,000 per channel!
    It’s the scandal that’s destroyed all the PEG Channels in L.A. and we here in Albuquerque are fighting for our lives as we speak. They are looking to kick out a station rated 5th in the nation for most local origination, have been in existence for 30+ years, and have done nothing wrong except stood in the way of Comcast’s ruthless takeover. Some 1,800 stations nationwide have gone under – but we are fighting like hell to make sure ours won’t be one of them!A great link to a video about the devastation this has caused in Los Angeles:www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZLaW8WmTpM&feature=player_embedded

  6. Cassandrajones says:

    NPR never interviews authors who research the JFK assassination.  They completely ignored JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE by James Douglass, which proves that elements within the CIA murdered our duly elected President.  I have stopped giving to NPR and I am now giving to your site, Russ.  Keep up your excellent independent research.  Thanks.

  7. Jay Warren Clark says:

    When the President signed the last extension of the Patriot Act the story NPR covered was the kind of pen the President used to sign the legislation!  How’s that for in depth coverage by “the vigilant watchdogs of the public interest?”  
    No NPR has been politicized and tainted for a long time.  JWC

  8. Smug Liberal says:

    On the subject, check out this book: 


    The mind of mainstream liberals were captured long ago.  Now people like Chris Matthews drive around listening to NPR in their Volvos or, more appropriately, Priuses, basking in the glow of moral superiority, totally unaware that their world view just as much a product of intentional planning as that Fox News watchers.  

  9. Mcdonagh says:

    PBS ended when W appointed his friends to run it since the programming has become crappy . There are only a couple of programs a week  that aren’t reruns or pap.  The budget has been throttled into salaries  and overhead  rather  than programming . The CBC is currently being destroyed using the same methods by the corporatists , who hate education for educations sake almost as much as they love profits

    • bongo says:

      Nice to see someone else has noticed how PBS is today full of reruns. Frontline pulls punches usually, and NOVA is basically spectacle rather than anlaysis. Moyers alas is as “on the one hand this on the other hand that” as he always was.
      NPR began getting really run down (more so than previously)
      under W. Probably many of his appointees are still running the show there.

    • Neo-Realist says:

      Obama could make changes in the personnel couldn’t he?  snark

  10. Heffer_explosion says:


  11. Dan says:

    Great article, glad to share on FB.  FYI Russ “See a piece we did on this a while back, here.” No working link.

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