March 2, 1995
Public discourse part of good life on NPR and PBS
by Howard Fast
When I drive, I tune to National Public Radio, and that brings a desperately-needed piece of sanity into my life. I listen to a world apart from the maniacal scream to buy, buy, buy a better toothpaste, sleeping pill, automobile, sofa, bond. I react to ideas and views that are not hung onto the notion of a softer toilet paper, a new musical or movie that is the most, the greatest, the ultimate. I listen, I think, I react. I become a human being who is not battered and manipulated with nothing left to his mind but a sales pitch.
The same is true of public television, PBS, which at this moment is the last reserve of televised drama in the humanistic tradition, as well as the only source of illustrated news coverage that is not chopped into sound-bites mouthed by simpering big-heads, who most often are not ever aware of what they read from the Teleprompter. Public television gives me surcease from the demented round of murder, killing and horror that saturates the channels of commercial television.
In other words, both public radio and public television are priceless anchors that connect us to reality, to decency and to a morality that is still precious to a majority of Americans. When we hear "All Things Considered," we are doing precisely what the title of this remarkable radio program suggests: We are weighing and considering, deciding what to believe and what to reject, filtering out contrasting opinions and not being used and manipulated by Madison Avenue. When we listen to the call-ins and impromptu arguments on National Public Radio, we get a remarkable picture of public opinion.
These things are precious to a democracy, precious beyond measure. A country's art is both a reflection of the society and a mirror at which the society constantly peers for clues to its pattern of behavior. The networks plead that they give the public violence, murder and related trash because that is what the public wants, but I reject this. It is not what the public wants, but what the public is conditioned to accept. Gratuitous violence has always been a coverup for bad writing.
Years ago, when the open-air performances of Shakespeare in Central Park first began, there was a huge, flat-topped rock next to the bleachers. Even though there was no admission charged for the seating, but the ghetto kids felt that the rock was a challenge, and by the time each program began, the top of the rock was packed with teenage black and Hispanic boys and girls. Until the show began, they'd be hooting and shouting and horsing around, but the moment the curtain went up and the footlights came on, the rock went quiet and the kids up there listened in rapt attention. I remember well a performance of "Measure for Measure" and the controlled applause, the laughter, the intense absorption in the play by the kids on the rock.
I think of that when I am told that the public gets what it wants. In all the talk since the Republicans took control of Congress and Newt Gingrich began to promote his so-called "Contract with America," I have heard almost nothing about the rampant violence, the filth, the killing and the bad taste displayed day in and day out on commercial television. Nor have I heard one word from the Republicans concerning the profits the networks derive from broadcasting's air rights that the taxpayers own and the networks use without paying a nickel of rent to those taxpayers.
On the other hand, the new enemies of Mr. Gingrich, now that the Soviet Union is no more, are public radio and public television. To hear the Newt tell it, the paltry few dollars we give to the foundations for the arts and the humanities to produce much of what goes over Public Radio and Public Television are going to bankrupt the nation -- in spite of the fact that the total given to these institutions amounts to less than the cost of a single warplane for bombing, indeed, only a small fraction of the cost of a bomber.
To me, the shrillness, the intensity of that attacks against these two precious institutions of the people is even more frightening than the drive against welfare, at least symbolically, for it is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's drive to destroy German culture and art. His words, "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun," echo down through the years. I cannot and will not believe that the millions of decent thoughtful Republicans accept New Gingrich's position on art and theatre and debate. It will be a sad day for America if he and his people manage to destroy the public voice.