At the very end of Fox and Friends yesterday, Brian Kilmeade and Fox "legal analyst" Peter Johnson Jr. go ballistic over funding public television and radio, saying it should be "privatized", calling it "welfare for broadcasting" and suggesting in their not-so-subtle way that public broadcasting is a government propaganda channel.
Why does this not surprise me in the least? After all, why would we possibly need public broadcasting when we have such stellar, unbiased sources as Fox News? Who would be there to tell us how the Muslims are going to impose Sharia Law on us (without explaining exactly what that is), or inflict Glenn Beck on the planet daily?
James Fallows wrote a terrific column on why NPR matters and should matter to everyone. After extolling Fox News' excellence (hey, he said it, not me) at what they do, he says this:
"News" in the normal sense is a means for Fox's personalities, not an end in itself. It provides occasions for the ongoing development of its political narrative -- the war on American values, the out-of-touchness of Democrats -- much as current events give preachers material for sermons. This is why Fox's emphasis goes to its star interpreters -- Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, the "Fox and Friends" crew -- more than to expanding bureaus around the country or the world, investing in scientific, economic, or international expertise, or generally trying harder to place primary observers wherever it can.**
Isn't NPR just the same thing, from an different political perspective? No, and the difference matters.
NPR, whatever its failings, is one of the few current inheritors of the tradition of the ambitious, first-rate news organization. When people talk about the "decline of the press," in practice they mean that fewer and fewer newspapers, news magazine, and broadcast networks can afford to try to gather information. The LA Times, the Washington Post, CBS News -- they once had people stationed all around the world. Now they work mainly from headquarters -- last year the Post closed all its domestic bureaus outside Washington -- and let's not even think about poor Newsweek and US News.
Ahem. NPR is reporting on the protests in Wisconsin. Fox News isn't. NPR reported on Egypt long before any "mainstream" news source did. But they think it should be privatized?
Bill Moyers recently spoke on the importance of facts, and how they still matter even in this age of infopinion. Indeed, they do. Much of his speech was directed at Fox News, and how they distort those same facts.
...So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.)
...No wonder many people still believe Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, as his birth certificate shows; or that he is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian; or that he is a socialist when day by day he shows an eager solicitude for corporate capitalism. Partisans in particular - and the audiences for Murdoch's Fox News and talk radio - are particularly susceptible to such scurrilous disinformation. In a Harris survey last spring, 67 percent of Republicans said Obama is a socialist; 57 percent believed him to be a Muslim; 45 percent refused to believe he was born in America; and 24 percent said he "may be the antichrist."
In the Fox News segment above, funding for public broadcasting is laughed at as "welfare for broadcasters", which makes no sense at all. Johnson just about burst a blood vessel over "Antiques Roadshow" and "Masterpiece Theater" , claiming they are useless shows that could just as easily be funded by private enterprise as the government. In the process, he suggested that those two shows are representative of all the broadcasting PBS does.
Then they go one step further, suggesting that because government funds go to public broadcasting, the government controls the content. Leaving no child behind or stone unturned, they also attack the contention that de-funding PBS would harm children. Speaking as a parent whose kids grew up with Sesame Street and other PBS children's programming, I couldn't agree more. It will leave kids with the sugary crap that has no substance on networks. The same networks that make Justin Bieber a star and obsess on every move Brittany Spears makes. So yeah, it'll hurt children.
But listen to what they're really saying when they shout "privatize public broadcasting!" They're saying we should not have access to information unless it's served through the filters of ideologues and corporations, a claim worthy of Orwell.
George Orwell had warned six decades ago that the corrosion of language goes hand in hand with the corruption of democracy. If he were around today, he would remind us that "like the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket," this kind of propaganda engenders a "protective stupidity" almost impossible for facts to penetrate.