PBS: There You Go Again

PBS: There You Go Again
by L. Brent Bozell III
October 24, 1996

There you go again, PBS.

In September, you gave us Hedrick Smith's "The People and The Power Game," in which Smith argued the press thrived on "scandal over substance," then produced flimsy example after flimsy example to document an allegedly anti-Clinton bias in the press.

In October, you gave us the "Frontline" documentary "Why America Hates the Press," which argued that Washington reporters are wealthy inside players too cozy with the powers that be. But whose thesis is this? Bob Woodward answered the question during the show: "Clinton makes that point in my book, that he believes that the Washington press corps is so out of touch that is absolutely inconceivable that reporters will understand the issues that people are really dealing with in their lives, and Clinton feels a profound alienation from the Washington culture here, and I happen to agree with him."

This "Frontline," co-produced with the far-left filmmakers at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), is bizarre and nonsensical, for a variety of reasons.

1. Where were the conservatives? One thing that makes many Americans, and tens of millions of conservatives, hate the press is its left-wing slant. Incredibly, it went absolutely unmentioned. With the exception of Fred Barnes (who wasn't asked about liberal bias), not a single conservative appeared on the show. Instead, PBS presented a left-wing stable of media scolds, first and foremost James Fallows, the new editor of U.S. News & World Report; followed by Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz and reporter/columnist David Broder; even far-lefties Christopher Hitchens and Mark Hertsgaard, author of the awful book "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency."

2. Where was the evidence? The program's correspondent, Stephen Talbot, decried the influences on reporters who buckrake from corporations, but never provided a single example of content altered by speaking fees. As Fred Barnes suggested unrefuted, "I haven't ever had anybody point out to me where that's happened." So what's the complaint then? (Better question: why do the show at all?) Fallows complained that corporations and trade associations expect a "subtle immunization," that before "doing you in," a reporter will say: "Oh, gee, I know old Joe from the tobacco lobby, maybe I should call him, see what he has to say." Earth to Fallows: isn't it the job of any decent reporter include the business side of a dispute?

3. And what about advocacy nonprofits? Talbot touted ABC's July 1994 decision to ban reporters speaking to corporate groups - but the rule doesn't apply to advocacy nonprofits. For example, in May 1994, ABC's Carole Simpson hosted a fundraiser for the liberal NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Why is it a conflict of interest to speak to the tobacco lobby but not to raise money for liberal lobbies like the NAACP? ABC told us its policy covered "groups with a political purpose," which apparently didn't include the NAACP.

4. If the evidence clearly pointed one way, why avoid it? Talbot decries the revolving door between journalism and politics, focusing on famous revolvers like Tim Russert and David Gergen. But he fails to mention what the revolving door proves. Over the past ten years, the Media Research Center had documented how almost four times as many liberals and Democrats have revolved into the media as have conservatives or Republicans. That points directly to a liberal bias, but "Frontline" refused to acknoweledge liberal bias even when it discovered it.

5. Just how hypocritical can you get? First, the pompous liberal critics: How can Fallows, Broder, and Kurtz keep a straight face denouncing speaking for money and television punditry when they've done both? Fallows insisted he despises buckraking revolving-door journalism, but keeps David Gergen at U.S. News. Broder deplored reporters as "policy advocates" but for many years has been a crusading columnist. Kurtz proclaimed reporters sympathize with politicians rather than the public, yet regularly defends against Bill Clinton's supposed maltreatment by reporters.

More importantly, how can PBS show us buckrakers like Cokie Roberts (of NPR), Steve Roberts (a PBS "Washington Week in Review" regular), and David Gergen (of the "NewsHour"), and not acknowledge PBS is a breeding ground for this? What better examples of merchandising whoredom can be found than PBS's Children's Television Workshop, or Bill Moyers? Of course, Talbot and CIR cannot attack Moyers: he saved their bacon in the early 1990s when he got the Schumann Foundation to fund them as they were preparing to disband. Now they get lucrative co-production deals with "Frontline." How tidy.

The worse hypocrisy of all belongs to "Frontline" istelf. It deplores reporters being too close to power, but hasn't done a single investigative program on the Clintons for four years. Instead, we got "Hillary's Class," that lovingly explored the life journeys of Hillary and her Wellesley classmates. And all of this was funded by you, the American taxpayer.