It was such a weird, seemingly off-the-cuff remark by Mitt Romney in the first debate: that of all the items in the budget an axe-wielding privatizing plutocratic president could hack away at, he pointed to a children’s television show and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer (who certainly deserves to be fired from something).
PBS being about the most infinitesimal line item in the budget, and about the silliest way of attempting to control the federal debt—like stealing from your child’s piggy bank to buy Exxon-Mobil. Yet there is a strong meme, particularly on places like Fox News and the conservative blogosphere, to dismantle public television.
Now perhaps there’s at least an intellectually honest argument that taxpayer money shouldn’t be going to public broadcasting of any kind. Obviously, I think that’s a stupid argument. Public broadcasting has great benefit, especially in providing informative and educational programming to underserved audiences, and yes, count me as “Sesame Street”-watching little bugger, who loved the ever-loving piss out of Bert and Ernie and Big Bird and Cookie Monster and all the rest. So there’s an argument to be made, but like the argument over say, voter fraud, there’s a pretty evident subtext here.
PBS and public radio are also some of the last informational outlets that are not in total hock to large corporate media conglomerates, and I’m not just talking about Fox News. I won’t even bring that convention of shrieking loons into the conversation. We’ll stick to the likes of CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, and sure, Comedy Central. They’re all part of major profit-driven companies seeking slices of market share in an increasingly fractured and ghettoized playing field. Do you think the “liberal” slant of MSNBC has as much to do with the journalistic attitudes of its personalities as it does the network seeing how Fox News gobbled up viewers by appealing to a particular ideology and trying to mimic that on the other side of the political divide? Even if it has quantifiably fewer stupid things going on air, the people actually in charge of MSNBC could not care less what is coming out of Rachel Maddow’s mouth as long as it’s getting the market’s share of Obama voters to tune in.
Now let’s talk about what this means and what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean there is a cabal of wealthy white guys deciding what news the American people will see each day (besides, those guys are busy setting the LIBOR rates in London). What it means, however, is that the news that reaches us through those venues is processed to be a product for consumption by the largest number of people possible. This affects the coverage of everything. It’s why we spend two news cycles talking about Big Bird instead of ocean acidification. It’s why we are all well-versed on Mitt Romney’s dog riding on the roof and Barack Obama looking down at his notes but no one knows jack all about speculation in the commodities futures market. It’s why so many think that poor people buying houses caused the financial crisis and why, still, no one understands what a collateralized debt obligation is.
You don’t really need to read Noam Chomsky to understand this either. Hell, just watch PBS sometime, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another universe (no, seriously, NOVA is one of the coolest shows on TV, and watching it sometimes makes me feel like I dropped acid).
Just watch Frontline. Frontline is probably a large part of the reason Wall Street, plutocratic conservatives, and the student loan industry want PBS wiped off the face of the planet. Its documentaries are frequently the most riveting examinations of modern society on television. From credit cards to the federal debt to the vaccine wars, it never fails to undress an issue and lay it naked before you. It’s pieces on the Iraq war and for-profit university systems, (“Bush’s War” and “College, Inc.”, respectively) remain minor masterpieces of journalism (almost all of them are available on-line or on Netflix, if you’re interested). My only point being the difference between what Frontline does and what we think of as televised news explains entirely the corporate-conservative hatred of the channel that airs it.
Funny how when you remove a profit motive for something that should be a public good—in this case, informing citizens of what actually goes on in their country and their world—you get a far superior product.