TV Eye

Beyond the bird

Cover from<i> Don't Cry Big Bird</i>
Cover from Don't Cry Big Bird

Big Bird is dead. Long live Big Bird.

Bleeding-heart liberals leaped into action last week when support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting came under attack. At risk was $220 million that CPB uses to fund public TV and radio – the place the general public associates with educational TV, classical music, and the last (and some would say the only) place where fair and balanced news and information can be found on TV.

Thanks to the Internet, the uproar was swift. As a card-carrying BHL, I received no fewer than six pleas from like-minded friends, as well as progressive online media organizations like MoveOn.org, to save PBS, imploring me to contact my state representatives and demand that the funds be reinstated. At risk, the messages placed front and center, was the Ready to Learn Program, which funds programs like Sesame Street and other shows most viewers equate with quality programming for children.

Hell no, Big Bird can't go!

As any good BHL, I signed the petition that hit my screen first and sent it immediately. Later, according to several sources, including MoveOn.org, "the House of Representatives approved a measure to restore $100 million of funding for NPR, PBS and local public stations ... in large part because more than 1 million of you signed the petition calling on Congress to reverse course." It's anticipated that the remaining $100 million will be restored by the time this column hits the streets.

The outrage wasn't just that funds were being cut, but the underlying suspicion behind the cuts. Most liberal and progressive messengers described the cuts as punishment to PBS for a lesbian couple's appearance on an episode of the children's show Postcards From Buster. More indignation arose when it was discovered that CPB head Kenneth Tomlinson had hired a researcher to monitor "the political leanings of guests on the public policy program Now" and "set up an ombudsman's office to scrutinize public radio and television programs for political balance," along with "payments approved by Mr. Tomlinson to two Republican lobbyists last year," according to a New York Times article by Stephen Labaton published June 22, 2005.

Since then, the CPB board appointed Patricia Harrison as the new CPB president. Harrison is a former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. But critics are most vocal about her past as co-chair of the Republican National Committee, saying that the appointment is another "instance of injecting politics into an organization that is supposed to be a political buffer."

Now, since I've been in the hinterlands of Lincoln, Neb., for most of June, The New York Times online and NPR have been my lifelines to the larger world. I've stewed with BHL indignation at each new online article or message from the MoveOn folks. Yet, imagine my surprise when, after my family's cordial inquiry as to what "TV Eye" would be about this week, they gave me blank stares when I said, "all this CPB business."

They had no idea what I was talking about.

That's when it struck me. BHLs are largely talking to one another. That has to change.

Igniting fears of Big Bird's death offers a woefully incomplete picture of what is happening. The larger issue, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich cogently wrote in his column last Sunday, was that the Bush administration and his minions are actively seeking not to destroy public TV and radio, but to "castrate them by quietly annexing their news and public affairs operations to the larger state propaganda machine that the Bush White House has been steadily constructing at taxpayers' expense." Remember (as Rich also pointed out) Armstrong Williams (and others), paid to write columns promoting the administration's policies? How about the "happy news" reports produced by the government, promoting activities in Iraq, passed off as an actual news report that aired on at least one Fox affiliate in Tennessee? Only one, you say? The question should be: How much tax money was spent on this bald propaganda, and what was the intended reach had this faux news not been discovered?

Rest assured, Big Bird is alive and well and will continue to be. What should cause unrest is what is happening behind the scenes, how the news is being shaped to suit the needs of a powerful few. What needs to occur is outreach to those outside the virtual smoke signals BHLs are plugged into. This has to be a face-to-face effort that requires BHLs to leave the cushy spot in the coffee shop where they Wi-Fi onto the Net. It means talking to those who may be close to us, but removed from BHL circles: our parents and other older relatives, our neighbors. We can't be fooled by the swiftness of the Internet. We have to step out of our comfort zone, talk to strangers, and get them to understand why all this matters.

If this isn't a good reason to unplug and darken our screens, I don't know what is.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CPB, PBS, CPB funding, PBS funding, Sesame Street, Bill Moyers Now, Big Bird, MoveOn.org, Ready to Learn program, NPR, PBS, Postcards From Buster, Kenneth Tomlinson, Stephen Labaton, Patricia Harrison, Frank Rich, Armstrong Williams

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