Nixon at the Switch

No president has attacked the network news organizations as vigorously as Richard Nixon. Beyond the strong words, however, lies a basic reluctance to challenge the immense financial and popular resources of the three commercial networks. But there is a fourth network in this country, the public network. Despite its poor financial state and relatively tiny audience, public television has consistantly provided the most incisive and courageous public affairs coverage, and now it is bearing the full fury of Nixon's hatred of the "liberal electronic media."

Public television is an easy target for Nixon because it is not the established institution that commercial television is. Its news and public affairs programming does not have the large following or high visibility of commercial news ventures. Also, the structure for funding public television is prone to easy manipulation from Washington. Over two hundred public television stations across the nation comprise the Public Broadcasting System--a non-commercial network. The presidentially appointed Corporation for Public Broadcasting organizes and channels government, foundation, and private funds to PBS to pay for their programming. With a determined tug on the pursestrings, the government can use the CPB to strangle a bold PBS into docility.

Nixon's assault began with just that tactic in 1972 when he vetoed a two-year, $155 million appropriation to CPB. Charging CPB had become "the center of power and the focal point of control for the entire public broadcasting system," Nixon proposed instead local grants totalling $45 million over one year. Executives along the public network knew that the combination of meager, shortterm funding and wide dispersion of funds was the kiss of death for quality national programming.

In the furor that followed the veto, CPB's chairman, John W. Macy, resigned in protest. To replace Macy, and to place the CPB in friendly hands, Nixon appointed Henry W. Loomis. Loomis, a former deputy director of the United States Information Agency, shared Nixon's antipathy toward the "fourth network concept" that was favored at PBS. Loomis has been an activist chairman who has worked vigorously to dismantle PBS's public affairs programming.

In a December 1972 meeting to set this year's budget, the CPB, with an eight-to-seven Republican majority, voted to withold funds from most PBS public affairs shows, accounting for thirty per cent of PBS's programming. William F. Buckley's "Firing Line". was dropped from the schedule, as was "Bill Moyers' Journal, Washington Week in Review" and $85,000 worthof Sander Vanocur. Said Loomis, "We ought to be spending our money on the kinds of programs that would stand up timewise for six months or a year...non-timely offerings." Obviously, programs that stand up "timewise" can't be too compelling issuewise. Said one PBS official, "Their view is that public TV has got no business getting into controversy, and we ought to stick to strictly educational things, pretty ballets and plays." Even independently funded programs could be blocked since CPB controls the network line feed from Washington to the affiliates.


CPB allots its sparse treasury selectively, and for PBS that is an accepted practice. But a great rift erupted between PBS and CPB early this year when the CPB itself attempted to exert creative control over programming. In the past, CPB had been a patron of the television arts, and a rubber stamp for the creative talents of professionals at PBS. But Loomis sought to bypass PBS and its "Eastern liberal" point of view. CPB directors voted unamimously to begin the financing and distribution of specific programs to affiliates. PBS was to be limited to the operation of technical facilities. CPB's first offering to public stations was 21 hours of strictly non-controversial coverage of Apollo 17. The new policy "was like letting General Motors underwrite and produce a public TV program about car safety," said one PBS official. PBS President Hartford Gunn, pondering government television production, said, "When you have all power in CPB's hands, all the necessary conditions are present for the Corporation to become a propaganda agency."

Bitter outrage at PBS and complex legal difficulties led to abortion of the plan. But, public television remained hopelessly stalemated as CPB demanded control of the network lines because it pays for them, and PBS demanded control because only it is authorized to use them. This spring, congressional pressure resulted in a compromise and a partial victory for presidential control. CPB will continue to control the network. CPB, in "consultation" with PBS, will decide what shows win Corporation funds. Questions of balance and objectivity in programming will be resolved by a joint CPB-PBS committee. The Nixon administration did not run PBS out of business, but it now controls public television and inhibits innovation to an unprecedented extent. Says Barbara Gordon of New York's WNET "Now in management meetings you hear people saying, 'Oh we can't do that program--we won't get money from CPB next year.'"

The fiscal screw continue to tighten on public television. In the past two years Nixon has vetoed three appropriations bills. With the Ford Foundation preparing to move out of public TV, a mad scramble for corporate benefactors is the only hope against program cancellation. Many programs and ideas have died in this assault against public television. Other programs, like WGBH's award winning "The Advocates," are just barely surviving. If funds can't be found immediately, "The Advocates," too, will fall by February.

There is no easy solution to save public broadcasting. Increasing dependence on corporate grants is a step toward commercialism not welcomed by PBS. And there will be no help from the government for the duration of this administration, at least. Public television will always be threatened with similar pressure until the united States government is finally prepared to subsidize the arts without censoring political content.