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Where's PBS's Gavel-to-Gavel Coverage?

Where's PBS's Gavel-to-Gavel Coverage?
by L. Brent Bozell III
July 24, 1997

"If PBS won't do it, who will?" The words from a $2 million advertising campaign echoed endlessly across 300 PBS affiliates in the wake of Newt Gingrich's unfulfilled pledge to privatize public broadcasting in 1995. (This probably doesn't mean anything in this corrupt city, but it was illegal for PBS to use taxpayer funds for that.) Two years later, the slogan has been exposed as a cruel hoax. Where on earth is PBS gavel-to-gavel coverage as the Senate investigates definite illegal fundraising, probable espionage, and possible treason in the belly of the Clinton-Gore campaign?

No major broadcast network has been inspired to air the hearings as a public service, leaving the field to feisty fledgling cable operations like Fox News Channel and National Empowerment Television, who have a fraction of the reach of PBS. Oh, how this mighty empire has forgotten its historical legacy - or has it? Do they serve the American people - or the liberal power elite that put them in place?

Laurence Jarvik notes in his book "PBS: Behind the Screen" how PBS used live coverage of the Watergate hearings - complete with repeats in prime time - to build PBS's reputation in the early years, and stick it to their enemies. Jim Lehrer wrote: "As programming, the Watergate broadcasts were a terrific hit with the audience and the stations and established once and for all that real public affairs programming has a permanent place on public broadcasting." Lehrer added vengefully: "As justice, it was pure delicious. We were being bailed out by the sins of a president who was trying to do us in. He and his minions were so distracted by the crumbling of his presidency that the plan to crumble us was abandoned and forgotten."

PBS also cleared the decks to air much of the Iran-Contra hearings, and the NPR-prodded kangaroo court known as the Hill-Thomas hearings. Washington station WETA even provided a live feed of confirmation hearings for Clinton Surgeon General nominee Henry Foster.

So why the blackout now? The public broadcasting newspaper Current reported: "PBS's traditional method of covering major hearings - gavel to gavel - appeared 'unmanageable' earlier this year when Sen. Fred Thompson? predicted that the hearings would run for a year, said [PBS "Democracy Project" boss Ellen] Hume. Stations' daytime schedles are largely devoted to children's programs - so much so that only 4-6 percent of stations carried the 1995 Whitewater and Waco hearings." And WETA cut off its coverage of those hearings right in the middle, despite its press-release claims of a "history of live, uninterrupted coverage of Congressional hearings." WETA spokesman Pat Lute wouldn't explain why, simply repeating the mantra: "We made an editorial decision."

As a fig leaf to cover its failure to add historical balance to its Republican President-bashing marathons, Hume quickly green-lighted a 24-part series titled "Follow the Money," dragged on the air so quickly it's not aired in many major markets, or buried in dreary weekend time slots. Executive Producer Andrew Walworth told Current: "We've got to get people into the tent, we've got to engage them in a story that I think is bigger than just the hearings."

Translation: we plan to campaign for government-funded elections, and claim the problem emerging from the hearings is the system, not the Democrats who did an illegal end run around it. That's precisely what I was told by an attendee of a recent PBS programmers' meeting in Dallas, where Hume unveiled the "Follow the Money" mission.

And that's exactly what they're doing. In the second episode, Time reporter Viveca Novak (who came from the liberal lobby Common Cause's magazine) previewed with anticipation former RNC Chairman Haley Barbour's testimony: It will lay out there the fact that both parties have this problem. Perhaps what we'll end up with is a very good case that both parties were scrambling for money, both of them went overseas, and the system lends itself to these kind of abuses, and maybe it really does need to be reformed."

Defiance is PBS's modus operandi these days. It skips out on fundraising scandal hearings, replacing it with propaganda advancing a liberal legislative agenda. It refuses to participate in a television ratings system, family-friendliness and the will of the taxpaying public be damned. They do it because they have absolutely no fear of the principle-challenged GOP.

In 1995, with an insincerity matching PBS's claims to serve the public interest, Rep. John Edward Porter promised PBS privatization advocates he would put the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on a "glide path" to zero - not a typical liberal glide upward with no questions asked. Now the hopelessly squishy Porter has announced House appropriators will grant an increase in the CPB's annual budget, from $250 million to $300 million, a clear betrayal of the Republicans' promise to bring this runaway, cash-rich dinosaur under control.