Two New Developments at PBS

Two New Developments at PBS
by L. Brent Bozell III
June 12, 1997

Two recent developments in public broadcasting deserve discussion:

1. Lawrence Grossman, a former president of PBS, has proposed that public television stations air programs containing commercials two nights a week. If that proposal weren't shocking enough, it's backed by top executives at major public TV stations in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Miami, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Reporting this electric bit of news, New York Times reporter Lawrie Mifflin added that eight public stations experimented with commercials in the early 1980s. The experiment was discontinued - but not because it failed. At WPBT in Miami, president George Dooley noted "Our membership contributions, our audiences, and our programming underwriting support all continued to grow. We wish it had been made permanent." Why wasn't it? Liberals think there's nothing ghastlier than a commercial and killed the concept.

Now they're at it again. Sharon Percy Rockefeller of Washington behemoth WETA-TV, which throws millions around on new buildings in the nation's capital, is appalled by the new proposal. "This solution would change the philosophical basis of public broadcasting. Either we are a noncommercial educational system or we're not." One wonders: How then does Mrs. Rockefeller justify the chain of WETA Learningsmith stores in area malls, selling PBS knick-knacks and program tie-ins? Shouldn't we shut those down, too?

Then there's outgoing FCC chairman Reed Hundt, who predictably carries water for the far-left Naderite commercial-haters like the Center for Media Education: "Any plans for the airing of commercials on public television are bad plans." Any plans? Hundt added: "'Commercial noncommercial television' is an oxymoron that shouldn't be tolerated." Again: shouldn't that include the banning of Sesame Street shops in malls? Shouldn't PBS demand that Time art critic (and PBS toady) Robert Hughes stop selling the companion book to his "American Visions" PBS series at $65 a pop?

These supposed anti-commercial purists ought to either ban the nonprofiteering, or let the public pay for public TV voluntarily and not through forced taxation. There is a solution, as Mifflin reported: "Individual stations are free to run whatever programs they wish. They could adopt Mr. Grossman's proposal on their own, if Congress authorized the FCC to waive regulations governing nonprofit noncommercial broadcasting." That waiver clearly ought to be granted, as a first step toward lightening the tax burden of public broadcasting.

But guess what? Billy Tauzin, the Republican point man on PBS in the House, opposes Grossman's proposal.

2. In the meantime, the PBS series "Frontline" did something remarkable last month, airing its very first hour-long documentary on a Clinton scandal. New Yorker writer Peter Boyer told the tale of Eugene and Nora Lum. The Lums were major Democratic fundraisers among Asian Americans during the 1992 campaign, and came to know party chairman Ron Brown. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, utility regulators with the state Corporation Commission were uncovering a regular pattern of bribery and corruption in awarding natural gas contracts. One of those patterns included bribery by Arkla Gas - led by Mack McLarty, soon to become White House chief of staff.

One gas supplier sued to bring the corruption out into the open. In came the Lums, offering to buy out the supplier - if they'd drop the lawsuit. Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony told Boyer the Lums had "no experience, no reserves, and they end up getting a contract to sell enormous volumes of natural gas over a 10-year period of time, and their biggest claim to fame seems to be their political connections....This was damage control...Mac McLarty had a motive and an interest in seeing that these lawsuits and the discovery and the public disclosure go away."

Once they became gas millionaires, the Lums cut Ron Brown's son Michael into the new company, Dynamic Energy Resources, and the mother of Commerce Department official Melinda Yee.

Believe it or not, Boyer is the first network correspondent to shed any light on these scandals. Where are the commercial networks with their investigative pieces? Even the Lums' indictment by the Justice Department triggered only a 60-second story on the networks.

Unlike liberals, conservatives do not care to make PBS their ideological sandbox. We'd settle for a little dose of journalistic balance, which Frontline is beginning to provide (albeit five years late). Conservatives also want voluntary funding - commercial or otherwise - for PBS, and the Grossman proposal is the correct policy prescription.