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Gutting NPR and PBS 

by Robert Herold

Efforts by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to gut the budgets of both NPR (National Public Radio) and PBS (Public Broadcasting System) underscore what is at core of the far right's agenda: Diminish -- even, if possible, destroy -- public institutions, especially those that don't conform regularly with conservative ideology. Increasingly, moreover, the religious right is defining the GOP orthodoxy.

The money issue, of course, is bogus. After all, we are talking about a few hundred million dollars -- or about what Halliburton charges the Department of Defense every couple of weeks. No, the attack on the public airways is symbolic. To the far right, NPR and PBS symbolize "elitism" -- those snooty people who live in the blue states, drive Volvos, drink lattes and look down their noses as all the "real Americans" who live in the red states (you know, the states with the lowest per capita income, highest divorce rates, highest unemployment rates, most pornography stores, lowest education levels and highest return on their taxes -- those states).

The far right's association of liberalism with NPR and PBS doesn't even stand up to inspection. When asked to explain their attack on these institutions, proponents of the cuts often will use Bill Moyers as the poster child of the rampant elitist liberalism that simply must not be allowed to continue on the public's nickel. That's the same Bill Moyers who a few years back produced an entire program about the hymn Amazing Grace. That Bill Moyers.

In any case, even granting that Moyers was left of center, most reasonable observers would agree that his program was more than balanced by National Review founder, William Buckley's long-running Firing Line.

Or maybe they have in mind the McLaughlin Report -- the lively yelling match that I watch every Friday evening featuring in the role of ringmaster the former Jesuit priest and sometime Nixon speech writer, John McLaughlin, who spends half an hour trying to keep his lions at bay. They include Tony Blankley of the conservative Washington Times and a former staffer for Newt Gingrich; Pat Buchanan, who loses sleep over Vatican II, clings to the belief that the liberals conspired to get rid of the "old man," aka Richard Nixon, and who, when pressed (not too hard at that), will rise to the defense of Joe McCarthy; Eleanor Cliff of Newsweek, the one unrepentant liberal on the panel; and a fourth panelist who sometimes is left of center and sometimes right of center----which as near as I can figure it means that many weeks, the score is conservatives 4, liberals 1.

Oh, and let's not leave out NOVA --word is, those people believe that Darwin was right. Then there's Sesame Street; now there's a subversive program if there ever was one. What's with that frog?

As for NPR, the only sin it has committed so far as I can determine was taking Bob Edwards off the morning news; that and continuing to subject listeners to the insider blatherings of Cokie Roberts.

Christine Todd Whitman, in her book It's My Party Too, opposes what she sees as her party's sellout to the religious right. She makes the point that centrists hold the balance of power in her party, if only would they assert it. But centrists, because they fear that the only reason they have power at all is because of "the base," or the religious right, so far just won't break ranks, at least not in the House. And besides, while the religious right may gall the center-left of the GOP on social issues, traditional Republicans generally support the economic policies being pursued by the Bush administration. They find the idea of privatizing the airwaves actually rather appealing.

I know, I invite attack even by flirting with the class argument (though as Edward Banfield showed some 40 years ago in his study of urban riots, class may explain much more than race ever did). But how can we avoid it? The truth is, the Karl Rove machine is going after the less educated, more fragile voter today, just as the inner-city machines went after the immigrants a century ago. Either way, the result is the same: You win elections.

Democrats remain befuddled. Thomas Franks' book, What's the Matter With Kansas? speaks to the situation. Franks opens with a telling remark: "The poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns, and in the election of 2000, the Republican candidate for President, George W. Bush, carried it by a majority of greater than 80 percent." What binds together these voters as they go about doing their own version of the Lemming, according to Franks, is fundamentalist and Pentecostal religion, given political meaning through symbolic action, such as the truly ridiculous association of public radio and television with godless elites.

Liberals, as is so sadly typical of them these days, remain stuck playing defense, and not very effectively. Their response? As we have now come to expect, alas, when faced with a frontal assault on principle, they scramble for ways to be "more inclusive." The word "pandering" comes to mind. Instead, we need to hear from Democrats regarding NPR and PBS that good taste and intellectual rigor are important -- for everyone. And those moderate Republicans? They might want to reconsider the deal with the devil they continue to support by passively accepting how their leaders are courting ignorance in exchange for political advantage.

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