Times ‘poke in the gut’ rallies PBS defenders
The attack against public TV came from an unexpected quarter, the Sunday arts section of the New York Times, which otherwise gives frequent and appreciative attention to the classier PBS programs.
The defense was stronger and perhaps more predictable, since fans expect to mobilize regularly against all sorts of opinion bombs, and they were already on alert because
the White House was proposing big cuts in aid to the field.
Since Charles McGrath’s commentary ran in the Times Feb. 17, the response came in 836 e-mails to the Times within a day and, since then, more than 6,600 to the NewsHour. McGrath’s headline asked: “Is PBS Still Necessary?”
“Yes” was the answer in almost 90 percent of the messages to the Times and (not too surprisingly) for 97 percent of those sent by NewsHour viewers, according to a count by the NewsHour staff.
“The poke in the gut . . . set off some special alarm bells” at public TV, commented PBS ombudsman Michael Getler in his online column.
Though McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, didn’t suggest dismantling PBS, he joined numerous critics of the public sector in asserting that “many [cable networks] offer the kind of stuff that in the past you could see only on public TV.”
Deep in the article, one sentence opined that “the best solution to public television’s woes is the one that will probably will never happen: more money, not less,” but McGrath immediately resumed faulting PBS, calling public radio a “greater success” (it’s “not trolling after ratings”). He concluded: “At its best, public television adds a little grace note to our lives, but public radio fills a void.”
McGrath later told the Los Angeles Times he was not suggesting that PBS should be done away with. “Had I had more room, there are a lot of things I could have talked about that are good.”
Instead, his essay tweaked PBS for not importing the BBC’s “stunning” David Attenborough series Planet Earth (carried here by Discovery Channel, “which could presumably better afford it”), faulted public TV for airing too much “dreck” (he sneers at Britcoms), and accused PBS of “mustiness,” noting that its major series are decades old and that “Jim Lehrer, 73, has been with NewsHour since 1975, so long that some of his early viewers are now in assisted living.”
Lehrer later told the New York Observer that he was “stunned” by the article, and not just by the crack about his age. He said his reaction was: “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Two days later Lehrer invited his viewers to comment on McGrath’s essay.
On Feb. 22, Getler, who ordinarily uses the PBS ombudsman’s online column to critique public TV’s own journalism, knocked the Times essay for giving “sort of a flip treatment,” without original reporting, to a subject that’s important to many viewers.
Paula Kerger, PBS president, criticized McGrath’s “misleading, shopworn” message, noting that the network’s programs had won 9 primetime Emmys and 10 news/doc Emmys, as many or more than any other network for seven straight years.
But viewers as a mass spoke louder on the question, “Is PBS Still Necessary?”
Now more than ever, many said.
“Are you kidding? PBS is the only reason why I have a TV. . . . It takes away all the b.s. that cable sells every minute of every day,” someone named Mike wrote to the Times.
Kathie Moore of Hutchinson, Kan., was one of many rural viewers who defended pubTV: “I go into panic mode every time there is a challenge to the usefulness of PBS programming. . . . It’s our connection to another world that is hard to reach without PBS. . . . Don’t even suggest abandoning us.”
Some viewers delved into matters of quality: “Place any show on Animal Planet against Nature . . . and you will see Animal Planet is nothing but filler material and Nature is quality,” wrote Michael N. from Chicago.
“I am comfortable with mustiness. It is familiar, civilized and trustworthy,” David Bacon of Sierra Vista, Ariz., wrote to the ombudsman.
Others agreed that pubTV is declining. A viewer in Ann Arbor, Mich., complained to the ombudsman that the local station “seems to be struggling, as evidenced by an increase in fundraising, commercial advertising and programming focused on aging rock stars and health gurus promoting questionable remedies.”
“PBS needs help,” wrote Bejay in Williamsburg, Va., “but when national institutions begin to look shabby, I think they ought to be revitalized, not torn down.”
Paula Kerger of PBS responds to McGrath's essay
Public Broadcasting: What PBS Really Offers
The PBS president's letter to the editor was published in the New York Times, March 2, 2008
It is dispiriting to read the misleading, shopworn attacks on public broadcasting by Mr. McGrath.
The article reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what PBS does and
the broad audience it serves. For the grand sum of $1 per taxpayer per
year, and voluntary contributions from people who find great value in
public television, PBS delivers news, information and entertainment to
about two million viewers each evening, an audience that is double or
triple that of most cable networks.
For the quality of programming, consider the awards that others have
bestowed on PBS, which led all broadcast and cable networks for
children?s programming for the 10th consecutive year, won 9 prime-time
Emmys and 10 news and documentary Emmys, equaling or topping all
broadcast and cable networks for the seventh time in seven years, and receiving twice as many awards as the closest competitor.
On one point I will agree with Mr. McGrath: Public broadcasting deserves increased financing, commensurate with the hearts we touch, the minds we open and the lives we impact.
Paula A. Kerger
Web page posted March 15, 2008
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