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It's a sad day when the characters of "Sesame Street" find themselves out on the street holding pink slips. Unfortunately, that may happen if Newt Gingrich succeeds in his efforts to halt Congressional funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
Our new House speaker justifies his crusade on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn't have to "subsidize something that [tells] them how to think." And, of course, don't forget that PBS is the epitome of what Gingrich absolutely-deplores: "the liberal media."
Republican hostility towards the Public Broadcasting system is hardly new; both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's attempts to cripple it were thwarted by Congress in the '70s and '80s. And two years ago, Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) temporarily blocked funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, claiming that its programs had "a liberal bias."
But then, we all already knew that the fuzzy creatures that prowl up and down Sesame Street really just represent the gross extremities of liberalism. All that emphasis on cooperation, tolerance and sharing is just a ploy to lure toddlers into embracing Communism. The producers once even dared to portray an interracial couple, Gordon and Maria, who spend their days talking to all sorts of funny-looking monsters. No wonder the American family has disintegrated.
"Sesame Street" aside, members of Congress have expressed outrage about some other PBS programs, including a documentary on gay culture and AIDS made by the recently deceased filmmaker Marlon Riggs. They have conveniently ignored that the film was not forced onto unwilling local networks: about 100 of the 350 station affiliates declined to air it. Contrary to the current rhetoric, no network is forced to show a particular program.
No matter how hard such programs are bashed by conservatives, it doesn't alter the fact that public broadcasting has produced a virtual treasure chest of documentaries dealing with the humanities, politics and the sciences. What Gingrich has forgotten in his unrelenting zeal to wipe out the "liberal media" is that more than a million children in his home state of Georgia actually learn reading and language skills through the programs broadcast by the Children's Television Workshop.
And despite Gingrich's protestations to the contrary, there clearly is a way to lift the financial burden off of Washington and preserve PBS. As independent public television producer Alvin Perlmutter pointed out in a New York Times editorial, simply charging commercial TV and radio broadcasters one percent of their gross annual revenues for the use of their channels would raise $260 million--just $25 million shy of the $285 million granted annually by Washington.
This suggestion will probably never be able to survive in a Congress bent on privatization. And in reality, economics aren't really the issue--politics are. PBS doesn't go well with the new emphasis on shrinking government and slashing welfare. After all, Henry Hampton's upcoming five-hour documentary series, "America's War on Poverty," might just hit the new members of Congress a little too hard, with its focus on the failures and severe cutbacks of the Reagan administration.
Nevertheless, Gingrich may very well have his way, blustering and babbling until PBS becomes part of network history. Move over, Democrats--Big Bird and Grover are joining you on the unemployment line. That is, if they can qualify for benefits under the new system.
Hallie Z. Levine's column appears on alternate Mondays.
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