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Now PBS and Harper’s Both Have a Koch Problem

In the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, Eugenia Williamson wrote about the backlash PBS is facing for what viewers and members see as a number of unforgiveable offenses. Her piece, “PBS Self-Destructs” chronicles the protests against billionaire David Koch’s presence on the WGBH board of trustees, the network’s failure to air the documentary Citizen Koch, and the secret funding of a series about pension reform by “a former Enron trader who had launched a personal crusade against civil-servant pensions.” (Et tu, Elmo?)

All this, at a network that conservatives in Congress have portrayed as “synonymous with liberal propaganda and government waste.” Here’s an excerpt of Williamson’s very extensive piece, which recounts the entire history of the network from the Lyndon Johnson years on (and which is unfortunately behind a paywall):

In the end…it doesn’t matter that the Republicans couldn’t defund PBS—they didn’t really need to. Twenty years on, the liberal bias they bemoaned has evaporated, if it ever existed to begin with. Today, the only special-interest group the network clearly favors is the aging upper class: their tastes, their pet agendas, their centrist politics. This should surprise nobody who has taken a long, hard look at PBS’s institutional history…. [T]he present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start.

PBS, presumably, was not a fan of this one. As noted by recently, the network responded by sending a list of talking points to its member stations and a letter to the editor of Harper’s, claiming factual and historical inaccuracies. That’s not surprising, for a company doing damage control after a critical article. But what was surprising was the additional step it took—pulling its ads from upcoming issues of the magazine in which that article appeared.

According to Keith J. Kelly in the New York Post last week, Harper’s and PBS have teamed up in the past to promote Ken Burns documentaries on the network, but that won’t be happening anymore, at least in the near future. “While there was an ad for the latest Burns saga ‘The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,’ PBS has pulled ads from the November and December issues,” Kelly reported. “The ads were supposed to hype the box set CD editions of the documentary.”

“I have to say I am shocked,” John “Rick” MacArthur, the magazine’s president and publisher, told Kelly. “You’d think PBS would be above that kind of tit-for-tat,” adding, “I thought they’d be mad and maybe write a letter to the editor, or propose a debate. It’s a tough piece, but I thought they’d be able to take it.”

Incidentally, this is yet another occasion for The Baffler to feel lucky that we don’t run ads. Williamson is a contributing editor here, and has criticized public media for the magazine in the past. In issue 20, she wrote about This American Life (which was at the time a program of Public Radio International) in a razor-sharp essay entitled “Oh, the Pathos.” Here’s a selection from that one:

Although the narratives presented on This American Life don’t always reflect reality, they do succeed as efficient conduits for upper-middle-class self-satisfaction. (An Onion headline from 2007: “This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence.”) The show makes its listeners feel proud of their station, their values, their endless sympathy for the infinite, and infinitely fascinating, varieties of middle-class families, and even, sometimes, for the poor, who, in the end, are just like everyone else.

Most of the time, in fact, the stories on This American Life fall under Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch: “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.”

Consider the forensic care that the Glass team has expended on making the seamy side of working-class life palatable….

Read the rest here.