If you're like a lot of people, you probably think there are some good shows on your local public TV station. But two great shows, which often air together on Friday nights, stand apart: "Now" and "Bill Moyers Journal." Come April, though, you won't have either one. If that sounds like bad news to you, there's something you can do about it.
In late November, word came that Moyers would step down from his program. At the same time, PBS announced that it would end "Now"'s run, which started in 2002 with Moyers as host. The two shows give viewers a glimpse of what PBS should offer throughout their schedule: hard-hitting, independent journalism and analysis. These shows have covered poverty, war, media consolidation and so much more -- not to mention serious discussions of taboo subjects, like the impeach-ment of George W. Bush.
So what happened? PBS has offered very little in the way of explanation, saying only that they will announce some changes in January. Their official statement talked about the "review and rein-vention of the news and public affairs genre on PBS," and noted that any changes are intended to help "revitalize public media in the context of today's rapidly changing com-munications environment." Whatever that means.
You might not be surprised to learn that the person at PBS who deals with viewer complaints, Michael Getler, has received many letters of protest. And from the sound of it, he's got more questions than answers -- he wrote that "one can easily understand how the combination of these two particular programs being taken off the air simultaneously could be seen, certainly by many dedicated viewers, as signaling a move away from hard-hitting, controversial programs."
Indeed. We know that there is always pressure of one sort or another in the public broadcasting world; right-wing complaints about PBS' phantom liberal bias, for instance, morphed into a campaign that saw the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting hire a researcher to document the "bias" on Moyers' Now program. Over the years this sort of pressure has had the intended effect, pushing PBS to the right politically and ensuring that public television offers a steady stream of un-controversial, middle-of-the-road conventional wisdom.
Not coincidentally, that's exactly the kind of programming that big corporate underwriters are happy to support. Washington Week in Review, for example, offers audiences a panel of establishment journalists whose views are already well-circulated. It's underwritten by Boeing and the National Mining Association. The flagship NewsHour newscast is brought to you by the likes of Chevron, Bank of America, and Monsanto. Would those corporate giants come anywhere near a show that challenged their power?
Cynics might say that the news about Now and Moyers Journal is par for the course--that PBS can't be much better than it is, squeezed by its corporate sponsors and Republicans in Congress who have constantly threatened to eliminate the remaining public subsidy. The fact that these shows existed at all, then, is something of a minor miracle. But PBS is supposed to be guided by higher principles. Its mission, as set forth by the Carnegie Commission in 1967, is to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," to serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity."
FAIR, the media watchdog group where I work, has spent years documenting how PBS has failed to live up to those promises.
But these two shows gave viewers precisely what PBS should offer every night of the week. What replaces those programs will be a test of PBS's commitment to the very foundations of public broadcasting itself.
So what's next, PBS? We're told to wait until early 2010 to find out what they have in store. In the meantime, though, let's send a message. FAIR has launched a petition to PBS to demand that the shows that replace Now and the Moyers Journal provide the same kind of unflinching, uncompromised journalism viewers deserve -- and that live up to the very mission of public broadcasting. Go to www.fair.org to add your voice.
Peter Hart is an analyst with the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).