Bright Lights Film Journal

When the World Was Wide(r): A Requiem for PBS: Why are there no nonpartisan attacks on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?

“There was a time when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ‘formed as an educational, non-commercial, and public interest alternative to the vast wasteland of commercial networks,’ meant something other than drearily underproduced Anglophone mysteries, self-help seminars for pensioners and forced retirees, staged cooking lessons, cheapjack puppet shows, and various and unspeakable retrenchments of the petit bourgeoisie.”

The exponential explosion of television channels is yet the most logical manner in which a capitalist multiplicity attempts to mask comprehensive banality and degradation. The cruel volume of channels begs to be read as a liberation, yet the ocean shallows as it broadens, revealing a barren bedrock on which we stand dumb and erect, only wishing the waters were deep enough to drown. The image of Tantalus is inverted — we wish not to quench our thirst but kill it, for the stream runs thick with poison. But when were the waters pure? Contrary to McLuhan, did the toxins, in fact, precede the stream?

The potential (though hardly alleged) diversity of television buckles under the monopolies that manufacture what passes as diverse. If a certain intelligent show happens to sneak through the thousands of digital screams and public humiliations, it will be deafened and subdued in due course. If more programs mean, in fact, more and cheaper clones, we cannot dignify the predicament with literary terms like “irony” or “paradox” — paradoxes soon bore, and our rage is hardly mitigated by the complicit commentary of millionaire satirists. Rather than vary content, the expansion of media outlets only varies the degree of legitimacy; it’s all the same, but some is better than the rest.

It’s now hard to believe that public broadcasting once provided a viable alternative to the lowest common denominator and that publicly funded stations actually earned the antisocialist oaths philistines gleefully hurl at them. There was a time when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “formed as an educational, non-commercial, and public interest alternative to the vast wasteland of commercial networks,”1 meant something other than drearily underproduced Anglophone mysteries, self-help seminars for pensioners and forced retirees, staged cooking lessons, cheapjack puppet shows, and various and unspeakable retrenchments of the petit bourgeoisie. To be sure, the “public discourse” claimed by PBS programming was always presumptuous. I was never consulted about how my annual tax of sixty-three pennies should be allotted, which grant-writing procedures should determine eligibility for program funding, or which local bureaucrats should be empowered to define my educational programming interests. Nevertheless, this presumed discourse once made considerable room for variety, even confrontation. As an impressionable and wayward adolescent, I remember my local PBS affiliate (Channel 13 in New York) endlessly broadcasting The Naked Civil Servant (1975) and the swinging penises of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989), which I then I regarded as overhyped if societally necessary. At the age of nine or ten, I had my first taste of “real cinema” with Channel 13’s Saturday evening showings of Fellini and Bergman, and I still possess fading, twenty-year-old VHS copies of The Joke (1969) and Saddled with Five Girls (1967), a phantom reminder of a now-unthinkable era in which the unsuspecting consumer might encounter a weeklong retrospective of the Czech new wave on regular television.

Perhaps, then, PBS audiences were not always ancient and its programmers’ tastes not irretrievably timid and numb. Perhaps, too, those programmers cannot be blamed for becoming ordinary cowards, for we’ve not forgotten the reason for public broadcasting’s downfall two decades ago — the Mapplethorpe Affair and the Congressional outcry spearheaded by Jesse Helms. From the mid-1990s onward, after Congress demanded PBS pull its liberal naughtiness or face defunding, the retreat and ossification began in earnest. Most conspicuous was the half-hour quasi-news show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,2 an obsequious capitulation to the Christian right, a sign that PBS, not composed exclusively of atheist faggots, certainly respects the incontrovertible role of organized superstition in the American public sphere. (At the same time, the plain if nevertheless activist queer newsmagazine In the Life has disappeared from most PBS stations and ceased its dwindling productions altogether at the end of 2012.) This cultural blackmail conjures nothing less than the sum total of Nietzsche’s final critique of Christianity: the innocent have been sacrificed for the good of the guilty, yet the sacrifice is all for naught, for the guilty’s sadism soils — and in this case, sterilizes — the innocent regardless.

Thus our toxins, our dullardries, are carefully selected according to a cultural extortion. One wonders why the powers-that-be at PBS don’t simply refuse government funding — it accounts for less than 15 percent of the annual budget — and search out independent sources of income, without strings attached. But the blackmail has its advantages: should PBS programmers acquiesce to conservative pressures, they can pretend to transcend cowardice and pose as defenders of the precious public sphere. We are always told that political lies come only from the indignant fringes, but rarely are we warned about hypocrisies from the center — the greatest reservoir and breeding ground for our fears, in fact.

As the “publicity” of public television becomes more beggarly, it also becomes less public, satisfying only those incapable of recognizing the blackmail for what it is. In his Paris Spleen, Baudelaire describes a poor philistine dog that logically prefers feces to finery; the dog, as well-behaved as any submissive, now signifies not only the lapping masses, but the acquiescent centrists at PBS, too: “A pitiful dog that prefers shit to Parisian perfume: “Ah miserable dog, if I had offered you a package of excrement you would sniffed at it with delight and perhaps gobbled it up. In this you resemble the public, which should never be offered delicate perfumes that infuriate them, but only carefully selected garbage.”3

In Baudelaire’s sentiment, neither profound nor ephemeral, we note the word carefully. This is the last remaining difference between popular culture and “public” culture: popular culture’s garbage is carelessly prosaic, while public culture’s garbage is carefully prosaic, its prudence the vestige of 19th-century propriety.

For all its painstaking narrowness, PBS still lacks any true philosophical unity or clearly articulated goal, and uses a limited range of documentary topics — the wheezing economy, the Iraq War, social welfare, Ken Burns’ monomaniacal Americana — to present a façade of national unity. Without doctrine or manifesto, PBS stumbles along with only the vaguest intention of providing the least offensive informational programming to the most easily offended public. The programming’s assumption that the public is unassumingly humanistic, not oppositional, becomes a front for PBS’s escalating descents into centrism. Its mandate to stylelessly educate surfaces most earnestly in the endless litany of identically narrated Frontline documentaries, inevitably about Bush v. Gore, the Wall Street bailouts, the ineffectual amateurism of the Occupy movement, and other events that highlight our powerlessness in the face of big government. With the arguable exception of the fading Bill Moyers, there are no true alternative voices. Why, after all, did PBS and National Public Radio not broadcast the third-party presidential debates late in October 2012? The debates were ultimately covered by Al Jazeera English, whose Qatar offices and multicultural (if Oxbridgean) journalists currently provide English media’s most vocal platform for Western pluralism.

Most amazingly, no one, whether rightist or leftist, dares criticize PBS’s substratum: the hours and hours of asinine children’s programming that even as a toddler I found miserable and insulting, even despairing. While liberals cannot truly believe that infantilizing, pseudo-didactic puppet shows signify anything greater than infantilizing, pseudo-didactic puppet shows,4 PBS still cannily uses the imperilment of its weary children’s programs to vilify its opponents, mobilizing the same “save the children” sentimentality usually the domain of fundamentalists. Disbelievers in PBS are savages, just as (in the eyes of the right) disbelievers in the Second Amendment deserve to be shot. In its bid for self-preservation, public broadcasting not only enjoys its righteous victimhood but makes nebulous presumptions, as demonstrated in this emailed propaganda: “Tell Republicans: We won’t let you defund public broadcasting . . . Republicans like presidential candidate Mitt Romney and House and Senate leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are attacking PBS for the same reason they are attacking Medicare, food stamps and public education. They’re on a radical mission to defund programs that benefit all of us in order to fund massive tax giveaways to the 1%.”5

Politics aside, the claim that PBS’s gutless feel-goodery benefits “all of us” is clearly unsupportable, since its one saving grace — its former glimmer of overt, unobjective activism — has long since been snuffed. My current PBS schedule, advancing a daring focus on crockery, offers such “public benefits” as New Scandinivanian Cooking, Pati’s Mexican Table, and Sara’s Weeknight Meals. Perhaps Sara is covertly a Trotskyist, and her weeknight meals are a plot — I can dream, at least. Music specials, meanwhile, when not aspiring to the increasingly conservative offerings of the Metropolitan Opera, drown in generational nostalgia — a recent week presented An Evening with Smokey Robinson (who I thought was dead). My local PBS affiliate also insists on airing Call the Midwife, presumably another inanimate import whose chivalrous English accents remind American masochists of their colonial inferiority, even two centuries past the revolution. A bittersweet signifier: PBS is now so unimaginative that I long for the days when it was mildly pretentious.

Clearly, PBS is not something one actually watches, but something that exists as a needed symbol — at once material and abstract — for secularists who lack centralized cultural institutions or who renounce intuitionalism altogether. As a church, PBS is wholly inadequate, offering not canons but only programming of alleged salutary or disinfectant qualities. Nevertheless, like religion it facilitates and mediates a mass illusion — in this case, the illusion that PBS-watching liberals can boast a solidarity comparable to that of religious conservatives. That the lie of solidarity takes the form of nostalgia, whether Smokey Robinson or Ken Burns’ backward glances, is a sign not only of surrender but contempt, of the triumph of feeblest mythos and moribundity.

The greatest myth, however, is that public broadcasting is noncommercial, simply because its financing comes mainly from giant, grant-giving corporations. For years, public broadcasting has been aggressively commercial in ideology, if not in funding: the only apparent way to secure an interview on The PBS NewsHour or NPR’s All Things Considered or Fresh Air6 is to have a book, film, or other media artifact to hawk. True dissidents and subversives rarely (if ever) appear, for they can hardly promote Simon and Schuster or the Brookings Institution. Shilling now inescapably constitutes the “public interest,” and legitimacy is granted only to the shillers.7 The same problem, of course, plagues even more intensely would-be satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who lambaste the entertainment-industrial complex in the first half of their shows and grant amicable, always topical interviews to entertainers, politicians, and oligarchs in the second. They excuse their complicity by claiming their rights as entertainers to indulge in hypocrisy, but their excuse is ignorant, not merely naïve. Satire is a high calling, not a license to sell out, and we don’t need our critiques timidly or irresponsibly framed as meager entertainments. One recalls Noam Chomsky’s argument that the media’s alleged “liberal bias” is in fact the best cover for the status quo, for liberal media tell us that we can go only so far in our critiques and no further. We can joyfully assail Republican intolerance and backwardness, but Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee will always wind up smiling at our roundtable, their religion perhaps corrupted, but never inherently treacherous.

I know of only one nationally broadcast public television venue truly dedicated to noncommercial culture: Classical Arts Showcase, a twenty-four-hour visual arts smorgasbord funded by the late Lloyd Rigler, a patron of the arts who made his fortune selling something called Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer. Its very presence still astounding in a proudly philistine landscape, Classical Arts Showcase is a well-intentioned and deliberately unsystematic attempt to conglobate all of Western culture into a non-ideological buffet, a perpetual loop in which Duchamp’s spiraling Anemic Cinema (1926) precedes a video of string musicians inanely playing Mozart in a Belgian garden, in which the climax of The 39 Steps (1935) is sandwiched between a Tangerine Dream music video and Montserrat Caballé bellowing bel canto nonsense from Bellini’s Il Pirata. The lack of organization and ideology is charming, but limited too in the Chomskian sense — classical music conspicuously stops at Debussy, classical cinema concludes with Welles. Yes, on lonely afternoons, I do watch the channel, but it’s rather sad — spending the day watching the corkscrews of one’s own demise.

Somewhere buried in my musty pile of videotapes lies a copy of a documentary, When the World Was Wide (1975), taped from PBS decades ago. It is an un-narrated, unmediated compilation of footage shot by journeymen photographers between 1905 and 1926 on their travels through what were then Persia, Palestine, and pre-revolutionary China. The footage is priceless, but more importantly it is left untouched, with barely a soundtrack, no voiceover, and no pretense of a quasi-humanistic narrative arc. It is a beautiful, haunting presentation, contrary to the hectoring quality of all television today. You will not find this film listed in movie databases or available on DVD; I’ve found only a single printed trace of its existence in an old newspaper. It remains the relic of an era when television, inane as it was decades ago, could momentarily put forth something sublime, neither an infantile cry for attention nor the innocuous nationalism that now constitutes public broadcasting. Such sublimity is a faded memory, and cable television today is far less barren than network television was decades ago — but PBS’s “public sphere,” so deeply in retreat, has ironically become the wilderness of which we were warned.

  1. From a recent fund-raising letter disseminated by PBS, November, 2012. The “vast wasteland” comment derives from FCC chairman Newton Minow’s famous 1961 admonishment, “Television and the Public Interest,” in which he expresses admiration for The Fred Astaire Show and The Twilight Zone while decrying the “procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons [and] endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending.” A full text of the speech can be found here. []
  2. And, to a lesser extent, its National Public Radio sibling, Interfaith Voices. []
  3. Baudelaire, Charles. Paris Spleen. Trans. Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions Books, 1970, 11. []
  4. A petition on the Credo Action website reads, “PBS is watched by more than 117,000,000 people each month. PBS offered more than 500 hours of arts and cultural programming last year and is the number one source of media content for pre-school teachers.” (See here. The petition also claims: “Studies show that children who watch Sesame Street in pre-school spend more time reading for fun in high school and obtain higher grades in English, math and science than those who don’t.” Although this claim is footnoted, the footnote actually discloses no source, and merely takes the reader to the PBS website when clicked. The recent television documentary Sesame Street Songbook: Songs of War (2012) more believably recounts how songs from the program, repeated at high volume, have been used as a means of audial torture on political prisoners and suspected terrorists. []
  5. See here. []
  6. I’ve neglected NPR only because discussing it is too painful. Though NPR features some astute journalists, such as Kojo Nnamdi, Leonard Lopate, and Tom Ashbrook, All Things Considered, NPR’s flagship show, continues its downward spiral, its reporting simplemindedly humanistic, gratuitously scored with irrelevant music, and assembled by journalists with post-adolescent vocal timbres. Of folksy shows in the vein of A Prairie Home Companion, I will not speak—save to say that I am more deserving of public subsidies than they. []
  7. Are there exceptions? Perhaps—but can you think of any? []