As Donald Trump’s resurgent Republican Party plans an aggressive and sweeping program to systematically dismantle much of the federal government, memory of an incident two decades ago provides an example of what can happen in a new era of conservative governance.
Today’s story has a positive ending because the 1990s incident failed because of its overreach. It provides lessons about what public media may face from the new administration and GOP Congress.
|Senator Larry Pressler|
In the fall of 1994, Congress came under the control of Republicans promising a new “Contract With America.” The Contracts’ many targets included the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The leaders of the effort to erase funding for CPB were House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Pressler was a true believer in unrestrained private business. He was the author of theTelecommunications Act of 1996. The Act opened the door to hyper consolidation of media ownership. Pressler's goal was to “privatize” public broadcasting and eliminate CPB.
Pressler hid his true agenda in high-minded rhetoric about deficit reduction. But, he actually thought public broadcasting was too liberal and it threatened his own conservative agenda.
THE PRESSLER QUESTIONNAIRE
As part of the Commerce Committee investigation of public broadcasting, in early 1995 Pressler sent a a 16-page, 168-point questionnaire to CPB. Pressler’s questions included:
• What is the commercial value of the current public broadcasting system? That is, what is the comparative value of the hardware–satellite transponders, transmitters, studio, etc.–and software–library of programs belonging to system producers, goodwill, etc.?
(CPB answered that it "does not own the assets of public broadcasting.)
• Please provide a list of all political contributions over $250 made by individuals employed by or working under contract for CPB-funded entities.
• How many members of the staff at National Public Radio, if any, had “previously worked for Evangelical Christian associations or the Pacifica Foundation.
• What are the salaries for public radio "celebrities” such as All Things Considered host Robert Siegel (answer: $97,805) that year; Morning Edition host Bob Edwards, ($95,337), "ATC's" Noah Adams, ($90,9940), newscaster Carl Kasell ($90,953), ATC host Linda Wertheimer ($90,921) and Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr, ($100,025 as a private contractor.)
• Because public broadcasting benefits from the sales of products related to its programming, what is the total gross sales figure for goods and services connected to public broadcasting? Please break down by radio or television and also itemize by program and product.
In 1992 Republicans on Capitol Hill–pushed through a statutory requirement that CPB enforce “balance and objectivity.”– Rather than protecting public broadcasters from government pressure, CPB’s job was seen in Congress as the enforcement of official ideological boundaries.
Many of the questions dealt with “balance and objectivity" of specific programs:
• Please describe the changes PBS required in Michael Pack’s film Campus Culture Wars and give the reason for each change. Please describe the changes PBS is requiring in the second episode of Reverse Angle and the reasons for each change. (Campus Culture Wars and Reverse Angle were controversial PBS programs at the time.)
IMPACT OF THE COMMERCE COMMITTEE ON CPB
The inquiries threatened the founding concept that CPB would be a “heat-shield,” protecting public TV and radio from the control of elected officials and government bureaucrats. The role of CPB was reversed by Pressler and company. Rather than protecting public broadcasters from government pressure, CPB’s job was now seen in Congress as the enforcement of official ideological boundaries.
Pressler and the Commerce Committee failed in their objective to defund CPB, though they cut CPB’s budget. CPB had bi-partisan support in Congress and many members personally disliked Pressler.
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND
Pressler was widely criticized for the nature of the survey's questions. Influential conservative pundit William F. Buckley called the questionnaire "Orwellian persecution, pure and simple."
Back home in South Dakota, Pressler’s effort to defund CPB was a major campaign issue. Public broadcasting was (and still is) highly regarded in far-flung South Dakota where few things tie people together. Pressler was defeated by Democrat Tim Johnson in 1996.