I’m Big Bird and I Don’t Approve This Message

  • submit to reddit
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about how the media giants who own your local commercial television and radio stations have been striking like startled rattlesnakes at an FCC proposal that would shed a light on who’s buying our elections. The proposed new rule would make it easier to find out who’s bankrolling political attack ads by posting the information online.

The stations already have the data and are required by law to make it public to anyone who asks. But you can get only it by going to the station and asking for the actual paper documents – what’s known as “the public file.” Stations don’t want to put it online because — you guessed it — that would make it too easy for you to find out who’s putting up the cash for all those ads polluting your hometown airwaves.

If approved, the new rule would require the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in the top 50 markets to make their files on political advertising available on line immediately. Other stations would have a two-year grace period.

In the meantime, the mighty giants of broadcasting have been fighting back. A number of senators serving the industry have spoken up against the proposal and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) — led by their top lobbyist and president, the frozen food millionaire and former Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith – have been meeting with commissioners urging them to scuttle its proposal or at least water it down until it means nothing.

As Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic magazine wrote:

“The arguments against transparency offered by the networks show that, having experienced the windfall of advertising dollars that Citizens United unleashed, they have little interest in meeting their legal and ethical responsibility to serve the public interest.”

The FCC is scheduled to vote on their proposal on April 27, and on Monday its chairman, Julius Genachowski, walked into the lion’s den – the really nice one in Las Vegas – and addressed the NAB’s annual convention. He noted that, “Using rhetoric that one writer described as ‘teeth-gnashing’ and ‘fire-breathing,’ some in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency, and against journalism.”

He added, “[T]he argument against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn’t be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters’ political disclosure obligation?”

Whatever the result on the 27th, those negative attack ads already are cluttering the airwaves like so much unsolicited junk mail and it’s only going to get much, much worse as the super PACs, political parties, the moguls and tycoons, many acting in secrecy, lavish perhaps as much as three billion dollars on local stations between now and November.

(AP/Mark Lennihan)

But now there’s something new in the mix, especially appalling to anyone who truly cares about public broadcasting. On April 12, by a vote of 2-1, two of three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of KMTP, a small public station in San Francisco, and struck down the federal ban against political and issue advertising on public TV and radio. For decades there’s been a rule against turning those airwaves over to ads for political campaigns and causes. Now the court has ruled that the free speech rights of political advertisers take precedence.

Imagine if you turned on your TV set someday soon and were greeted by Sesame Street, brought to you by the letter C, for “creeping campaign cash corruption.” Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but as the late William F. Buckley, Jr., used to say, the point survives the exaggeration.

If ever there was a camel’s nose under the tent, this is it – and we don’t mean one of those humped creatures that show up on PBS’ Nature or an episode about backpacking through Egypt on Globe Trekker. The current public system was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. “It will get part of its support from our government,” Johnson said, “but it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people.”

The Public Broadcasting Act uses the word “noncommercial” sixteen times to describe what public television and radio should be. And it specifically says that, “No noncommercial educational broadcasting station may support or oppose any candidate for political office.” We’ve taken that seriously all these years, and most of us who have labored in this vineyard still think public broadcasting should be a refuge from the braying distortions and outright lies that characterize politics today — especially those endless, head splitting ads.

But in its majority decision the court wrote, “Neither logic nor evidence supports the notion that public issue and political advertisers are likely to encourage public broadcast stations to dilute the kind of noncommercial programming whose maintenance is the substantial interest that would support the advertising bans.”

Sorry, your honors: this is the same so-called “logic” that led the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its notorious Citizens United decision, the one that opened all spigots to flood the political landscape with cash and the airwaves with trash.  “To be truthful” one former PBS board member said, “it scares me to death.” Us, too.

The court decision did uphold the ban on public broadcasting selling ad time for commercial goods and services, although, as corporations and others cover the cost of programming through what’s euphemistically referred to as “enhanced underwriting,” public TV already is close to the line of what differentiates it from commercial broadcasting.

And understandably, with our stations always in a financial pickle, frantically hanging on by their fingertips, it won’t be easy to turn down those quick bucks from super PACs and others. But hang in there, brothers and sisters in the faith: If ever there was a time for solidarity and spine, this is it.

Stations KPBS in San Diego and KSFR, public radio in Santa Fe, have said they won’t do it. If enough of you say no, this invasion might be repelled. And viewers, they need to know you’re behind them.


Bill Moyers Speech (2011): “The Pivotal Role of Public Television”

Take Action

Find contact information for your local PBS television station at PBS.org.

  • submit to reddit
  • Bcameron43

    Another big worry is the “Forensic Science” smoke and mirrors mess. Frontline broke a story that there is no science behind all those fingerprinting, hair samples, bites on flesh, etc. Just peoples opinions. DNA seems to be the only science that is actually science. No courses required, no examinations to take just money to a bogus organization to get a bogus “Certificate” qualifying them to appear in a courtroom. People are being sent to their deaths with this trash being presented in a courtroom as evidence by so called experts. Really scary.

  • Kenegbert3rd

    I do not want political nonsense  advertisements on my public television stations, and I’ll write letters to that effect.  Today.

  • jp

    Super Pacs have turned elections into auctions. democracy is dead until this ridiculous ploy by the far right is quelled.

  • Chris

    I think we the people should have a mass pullout from all cable TV.  Talk about mind polution! 

  • Katkinder17

    Would my flashlight help? I think more “light” is needed!

  • Olaf2

    Thank you Bill for once again educating us about what’s going on. Wonder, no matter how much I love PBS, if commercials will spoil it, especially political ads. I’ll probably turn it off, as I have all other TV. Such a shame we cannot stick w/promises any more.

  • Ann Romer

    When the Supreme Court gave their blessing to unlimited super-pak funding and manipulation, letting anonymous donors slither in to political campaigns, the justices stepped into the political arena. They are no longer to be looked up to or trusted. Greedy political fanatics jumped on this opening, and now they want to advertise on PBS and NPR. Smarmy, self-serving, and illegal. Thanks, Bill. We must fight this trend.

  • Annette K. James-Faltot

    I hate ads on TV.  They are annoying and the reason I watch PBS is so that programs I am watching are not interrupted by stupid advertising.  POLITICAL ADS on PBS?  Now that is too much. Yuk!

  • JonThomas

    I like the camel’s nose in the tent analogy. This really could become one of those water shed events from which public television may never recover.

    I was also thinking of the straw in a camel’s pack … Or  more aptly, one more torrent of water in an over-full stream….

    Over the last 2 years or so, my local PBS station, WETP, has showed programs that seem more like infomercials than programs serving the public good.

    1-2 hour shows of speaking seminars of the type one pays for to spend a weekend in a hotel conference room.

    Some may argue that this these types of self-help seminars are beneficial, but if one or 2 people get there programs on PBS, where are the others?

     To broadcast airtime to certain individuals who are selling books and conference/ seminar tickets, without broadcasting all types and examples of other person’s help philosophies, amounts to advertising. This type of programing has been an insidious creeping-in of shows which are  not just disseminating  knowledge or enlightening the Public Television audience, but instead are subtlety promoting a certain outlook and the commercial interests of a person or people.

    Another insidious example of what so far seems to be an example of an interests promoting show is a new show called…”America Revealed.”

    Thus far it’s been nothing but a series of propaganda pieces promoting Big Business and Government expenditures while hyping the supposed greatness of American systems of commercial and public infra-structures.

    One example from this week’s episode, which was broadcast locally for me on the evening of 4/18/2012, happened during a segue between… a piece promoting the Air-traffic Control System’s switching from their current radar-based tracking and routing to a GPS based system…and a piece on the National Highway System.

    On the surface it sounds reasonable, with safety being promoted (which I find valid and a good use of a Government for the people.)  But what also was promoted was the ability to increase the amount of traffic in the skies, which are nearly saturated at the current time due to current technology and safety concerns if more air traffic is allowed.

    Who stands to benefit most? And, who stands to carry the expense of such changes?

    What wasn’t mentioned directly is that instead of the Airline Industry or air transit consumers, the American tax payer will be forced to foot the bill.

    Who uses the skies? Is the the vast majority of the 99%? No! …Certainly not me or most of my extended family, we can’t afford to fly.

    It is the vast MINORITY of citizens who CAN afford to fly, with a good portion of them being business men and women flying for business purposes.

    A “fair” way of raising expenses for the change over in technology, might/would be to tack a surcharge onto the cost of flying to be carried by such a “flying class.” But since that would increase costs to the consumer, less people would have incentive to fly. Therefore the Airline Industry would love to see the American Tax Payer foot the bill.

    But for me the the insult added to the inequality-gap-insult was the sentence used for the segue…

    “…But most Americans “PREFER”  their personal space. So getting from A to B means one thing…cars.”

    Here is the insidious addition of perception altering language used in such propaganda.

    Most Americans drive because they HAVE TO drive. Yes, it’s true that the environment and the nation’s infrastructure would find sorely needed relief if mass transit was utilized more often, but that is an aside from the fact that most of us drive because we are forced to by time, ease, and economic affordability.

    We don’t drive to other states because we prefer “personal space.” We drive because we can’t afford the airline fees and the subsequent car rental at the the destination!

    This is just one example of the many insidious insertions of commercial propaganda pieces and accompanying perception manifesting language usage in this new PBS show.

    I agree with the essay above. Well done men. Unless we as viewers, and those who enjoy the type of programming we have come to know and respect from PBS, stay vigilant and react to the proposals and actions taken by interest groups, we will find this island of sanity and reasonableness swept over and covered by a sea change of commercial interest.


  • Willa Lucas

    I have noticed several “enhanced underwriting” plugs that sure look like typical advertising.  Coca Cola, Subaru and American Express come to mind and I know there are others.  Scary to think public broadcasting will go to real advertising and most scary that political ads will become common.

  • 4 whirledpeas

    My local station is operated by a university, and there is an economics professor who comes on in between programs to tell us regularly how terrible the President and his economic policies are. 

    I’ve written to ask if this legal (since it seems like he is campaigning). Apparently it is.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Jon, your essay is so accurately descriptive and thoughtful. I hope you find a topic under which to write another about what type of programming would best serve the public both on commercial and voluntarily supported outlets. (Assume you recommend Moyers&Company.) The self-help propaganda disturbs me too on PBS.
    Thanks for taking a journalistic approach and reporting on your local stations. I wish more people would use that method, so that we could get a grassroots picture of what happens nationally.

    I’m sure that can’t be a public university 4whirledpeas describes above. It sounds more like a denominational religion connected enterprise. (Wonder if they have to include contraception in their health plan.) Censorship by high volume wealth power is not a free “marketplace” of ideas. I thank both these contributors.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    There is programming (dramatic and even some documentary) on cable and premium cable that will never be available on digital broadcast TV. C-span is another bright light of truth (thanks to Brian Lamb) made available with cable industry funding. And believe it or not, there remain locales that would have little TV access without cable.

    What is wrong today is that cable/satellite is a cartel with powerful lobbing power. Rates are too high  as compared to costs, and to the typical wage. We should have had faster ISP services and a la carte subscription(buy only the channels you prefer and exclude the rest) long ago, but the companies have been allowed to merge until several dominate the market, often abusing local monopolies. It is easy to understand why more people are watching TV on their computers. Providers combat this by limiting bandwidth which is creating false scarcity where plenty should exist.

    I have never paid for cable. I’ve watched it I but never will pay. At root, te pubic owns bandwidth and airwaves in common, without question. Chris is recommending some sort of boycott. If you do it please use that  freed up cable bill money for a good cause. Maybe we should Occupy ESPN? All TV has a drugging and addiction effect that is techno-physiological. It can be a dangerous and powerful force. We all should limit our screen time. Feed your head a balanced diet by reading and discussing in person.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    TV addicts robo-calling among themselves….

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Frontline told us some of what we need to know about police voodoo. Remember the bite-mark pseudo-science? These Police-Worship shows with studs and models as enforcers have an ominous undertone akin to North Korea’s cult of personality. 
    We all should understand that law enforcement personnel are weak humans like the rest of us with all the same distractions, temptations, fallibility, fatigue and frustrations. As in soldiering, a few specialists handle the dangerous work. As long as we are bombarded with terrorism-mania police will be unable to find their proper role. Sound guns are being tried on peaceful demonstrators in Chicago, and burn weapons rejected by the military are now in law enforcement hands. More toys solves nothing. When you gain perspective you can see how the 1% is using the police to intimidate and deprive the 99%. I’d hate to be an enforcer deprived of the protect and serve role, and caught in the middle. Writers would have to be insane or sadistic fascists to keep rewriting episodes of shows like CSI and Law and Order SVU season after season. They certainly exhibit disdain for their audience, for due process and for democracy.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    What type of university is it?

  • http://media-monitors.blogspot.com/ Public Takeover

    This is a quotation worth taking away,
    As Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic magazine wrote:

    “The arguments against transparency offered by the
    networks show that, having experienced the windfall of advertising
    dollars that Citizens United unleashed, they have little interest in meeting their legal and ethical responsibility to serve the public interest.”

    Who wants to place bets on how many years it will be before we have to whisper words of dissent, and must make public display of mouthing official slogans, on pain of intimidation, firing, torture, or disappearance?

  • http://www.facebook.com/litlgrey Carl Howard

    At last, a constructive use of our public airwaves… partisan political propaganda!   Why didn’t the corporate oligarchs think of this decades ago?

    What do you mean, they DID think of this decades ago…?

  • Julogue1

    “The current public system was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. “It will get part of its support from our government,” Johnson said, “but it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people.”

    Seems Democracy must be won over and over and over again.   Those who know how to do it need to set up an online petition asap to prevent this present attack.  Also, don’t we have attorneys out there that can take this on?  Doubt that it would be difficult to fund such a project with contributions.   It wasn’t so long ago that the extremist right wanted to defund Public Broadcasting.    

  • Jluke

    Bill, Where have you been?  PBS “Public” Television ceased to exist the moment the first corporate sponsor wrote it’s first check to Big Bird. You yourself are being brought to us by Mutual of Omaha.   I will never support PBS for that very reason, and I see no controversy in the superpacs insinuting themselves into the PBS schizo mix.  Reagan and his  Revolution against democracy  began the pollution of the public airways, and its disciples have never looked back, fully aware that, by attrition, the destruction will someday be complete.  
    As far as I know, Link TV is the only 100% pure Public TV station, and I encourage all supporters of public broadcasting to say goodbye to PBS and say hello to Link.

  • Ellen

    It should scare all people who are critical thinkers.  In their effort to undermine true journalism, public television and transparency, they are actually being quite transparent in their assault on freedom and grab for power.  Study history, at almost any time period, and you’ll recognize the tactics and purpose.  The way things are done changes with the times, but what is being done remains the same.  It is scary.  If we don’t recognize the threat, the danger we are in,  it will be too late to rebuff it.  Personally, I find their statement, lies, spins an insult to our intelligence.

  • Zipidachimp

    why does it take 5 minutes to get through the intro to McNeil/Lehrer at 6.00pm?
    Ads, and foundations wanting recognition. whatever happened to anonymous philanthropy?  Run the damn acknowledgements at the end of the show!!!

  • cottoncat

    The number of ads and station promos has made viewers a captive audience.
    The mute button is the only relief from this unsolicited barrage of junk TV.

  • JonThomas

     Ty Grady…

    Yes, I highly recommend Moyers & Company. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Moyers’ programs for years. He doesn’t just interview and give a soapbox..he questions, challenges, investigates, reports, editorializes, and steps outside of his own beliefs and opinions, in what appears to me to be an attempt to present to his audience what I feel is an honest delivery of what he finds interesting and important for his watchers to know, consider, and have the opportunity to learn more about.

     Journalists of Mr. Moyers uncommon stripe seem to have a high degree of respect for their audience.

    While I’ve seen a few things on my local station I don’t like, over-all it’s not too bad. I do, at this time however, live in the Bible Belt, so it is difficult here to not see influences. Conservative viewpoints are also prominent in my locale, but diversity does exist.

    The type of programming I enjoy from PBS (and other venues) is, and always has been, that which shows respect for the viewer. I have always found, that except for cases in which people have been conditioned to authorities (and people in position of authority,)  or never trained to think for themselves (which, unfortunately, is far too common in our society,) when presented with as much information as possible, most people can make up their own minds.

    People don’t need to be “tricked” into taking sides. I don’t mind “honest” persuasion, but I do abhor the co-opting a person’s thought process through underhanded means. Examples of such are lies, omissions, use of  “linking terms” that serve through implication to tie one idea to a negative connotation, and that which the people at FOX are experts at… lowest common denominator politics…appeals and statements designed to make a viewer feel part of the majority, or to be going against common sense, therefore stupid or evil,  if they disagree with the assertions or opinions of the pundits.

    I don’t even mind far right wing shows if they are sincerely delivered. Though, early on for me (mid to late 1980’s) I recognized that far left and progressive viewpoints were not often represented on any U.S. station, including PBS. Mcneil/Leher was considered left wing, but in reality was actually the middle. Without a true left wing being represented those center politics do seem left wing…at least left of the fascists and religious right.

    I find it difficult to categorize myself as I like to find my own opinions on every issue (I’m a fan of much of Ayn rand’s ideas, read the bible, and at the same time  hold that some socialist programs are necessary and can and do serve the public good.)

    That said, I do like to see more left wind and middle of the road opinions on PBS. I feel the right, conservative, and the corporate interests are overly served by commercial stations. From PBS I like to see those people, issues, ideas and ideologies which are often not presented by the commercial stations. I feel that is a “fair” public service.

    I also hate the type of politics seen today, on all sides, where people are expected to carry and parrot the party line.

    An honest person may have right wing political leanings on one issue and progressive on another. Even the most right wing conservative who forcefully declares that such a program is demonic socialism,  won’t refuse or return his social security check out of principle (hypocrites!) They won’t even vote against that one, but when people without a voice are asking for governmental relief, those same hypocrites scream “socialist!” at the top of their lungs.

    I believe the show “America Revealed” that I mentioned, so far seems to be a show containing liberal propaganda to elicit favor for Government Stimulus Spending.  But, however sliced, it’s still commercial interests, this time from a “liberal” ideology.

    I believe stimulus spending can be beneficial. But, the hypocrites will assert that stimulus grants and investments which go to building infrastructure which serve a common good are socialist, but those financial investments in the Air Traffic Control grid that in reality assist the Airline companies, are considered necessary. Self-interest and commercialism at it’s finest. For now, let’s leave out the environmental impact that even one plane causes, let alone doubling the number of planes in the sky (that “side effect” was conveniently not mentioned.)

    An honest report on that subject would have presented all sides of the issue, and would have at least MENTIONED how the Airline industry would benefit, the impact on the environment, and even job loss and creation (there may be more asides than these to consider), not just an appeal to the nationalistic pride Americans are expected to show toward it’s “great” systems.

    I emphatically agree with Mr. Moyers and Mr. Winship’s essay.  Allowing special interests access to advertise political candidates and issues, not only goes against the charter and spirit of public television, it creates an atmosphere where honest discussion evaporates under the heat and pressure of monied influence.

    So, while I work on brevity, I’ll just say that shows which, as “honestly as possible,” educate, entertain, up-build, critique, inform, investigate, and appeal to the vast array of American needs, values, and preferences, are…by me…welcomed.

  • Pepegot1

    This, along with the recent Supreme Court descison for Super Pack money, is an encroachment on PBS to be uninfluenced by the plutocrats who run this country. It must not be allowed under any circumstances!.

  • Aaron Read

    Bill, the court did not side with KMTP.   KMTP was in court for airing regular ADVERTISING, and was challenging the statute that prohibited commercial ads from noncommercial broadcasters.  Unfortunately, that statute also prohibits political ads and issue ads, so the whole thing ended up under review.  In an ironic twist, KMTP actually LOST…and will still have to pay the FCC their original $10,000 fine…because the court upheld the prohibition on advertising, but decided to strike down the prohibition on political ads and issue ads.

    So yes, this is all KMTP’s “fault,” and oddly enough, nobody actually “won” anything out of this decision.   Certainly no non-commercial broadcaster did.

  • Hezhtur

    My husband and I have been increasingly disappointed in PBS’s advertising.  We miss the time when there was no advertising at all on PBS.  I am disgusted to think there may be political advertising on PBS.  There will be shows that we will always watch, such as Bill Moyers, but we are turning more and more to Link TV and hoping to see more like it. 

  • JRTowle

    Mr. Moyers:  So called “public” broadcasting, both television and radio contain a growing abundance of corporate advertising.  To be sure, it is subtle, but it none the less tells views and listeners what good, responsible corporations are bringing us the programming. If you lived in Alaska, where British Petroleum (BP) has a very dubious environmental record, you would be constantly encouraged, when viewing PBS television programming, to think of BP as an environmental saint, which is so benevolent that it provides PBS TV viewers with wonderful programming.  Conoco-Phillips dominates the radio broadcasting.
    I watch these self promoting corporate advertisements and wonder if the claims and innuendos are ever fact checked by PBS, NPR and all the other beneficiaries or if the unspoken rule in the n0n-profit corporate headquarters is one of not biting the hand that feeds.  These are the same corporations lead by the same people who fund the super-PACs.
    The camel already has its corporate head under the tent.  It will only be a matter of time before its super-PAC hump is in the middle of the tent and we are listening to and seeing political messages in the break between our viewing of Moyers & Company and Need To Know.

  • Brepstein

    So right you are.  Nevertheless we have to stop what we can.  Every time I saw these ads, I thought,” I can’t believe these corporations are putting these ads here.”  I thought they were trying to brain wash us. Thre is no way to believe them.  I think there should be a non-bias committee to ban all commercials, political especially, that edits according to facts. 

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Brevity is a minor consideration when you can provide thoughtful and sincere discourse. Thanks for noticing Michael Winship’s contribution.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SZRRYLS6DRPYC777J73FVFE6RQ Patrick

    You are so right.

  • 4 whirledpeas

    It is a state university.