The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Carnegie Commission
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. If you`re watching this program, you`re watching -- in case you didn`t realize -- something called public broadcasting, and tonight our story is about just that: America`s non- commercial radio and television system. To see this program you are watching one of 280 television stations linked by PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. In its present form, public broadcasting is just over ten years old. Before that it was called educational broadcasting. The new form and new title were born in the late `60s, in part out of a study undertaken by the Carnegie Commission. That report became the bible of public broadcasting. Some regard it in its idealism more like a Sermon on the Mount. Now, a decade later, Carnegie has looked again; the new commission has examined what`s been wrought on the public airwaves in ten years and what has not happened, and what could be done to make it happen. After eighteen months of study the new commission issued its report today. The report finds public broadcasting a "national treasure," but fundamentally flawed. Tonight, Carnegie`s recommendations to repair the flaws, and what chance they have of being accepted. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, public broadcasting has been accused of programming only for the elite; of being inefficient and wasteful in its operations; of being bland and running scared from controversy, particularly in its news and public affairs programs; of relying too heavily on imported programs from Britain and on funding from oil companies; of being leaderless, directionless; of being obsessed with its own bureaucratic infighting; of stifling creativity and freedom of expression by artists and journalists; of being obsessed more with fundraising and politics than in producing programs; and on and on it goes -- with a defenseor a denial offered, of course, along the way to each of the charges. It is within this already restive, sometimes tumultuous climate that Carnegie II was dropped today. Robin?
MacNEIL: The new Carnegie Commission of seventeen members cost a million dollars and worked, as I said, for a year and a half. Its chairman is the president of Columbia University, William McGill. Dr. McGill, in view of all the criticisms, does Carnegie consider now that public broadcasting has been a failure?
WILLIAM McGILL: No, not a failure. At its most sublime moments it`s a national treasure; the problem is that the sublime moments do not come sufficiently often, many of them have British accents, and we are looking toward a way of trying to take the best of public broadcasting as we now see it and making it into something by 1985 of which we can all truly be proud.
MacNEIL: Well, taking all these problems, some that Jim outlined that are criticisms from outside, some of them repeated in fact by your report, what do you propose to do about it? What can make it better?
McGILL: The report is immensely complicated; it has more footnotes than a Ph.D. thesis, but I`ll give you the best one-minute summary I`m capable of. First we recommend that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting be replaced by anew non-governmental, independent corporation...
MacNEIL: Could I just interrupt? For those who don`t know what the corporation is, it`s the body that receives funds from the Congress and administers them to the system.
McGILL: That`s right. It`s viewed by many as a bureaucratic organization which does not fulfill the role that Carnegie I had intended, partly out of history and partly out of the problems posed by the federal act in 1967 that created it. I don`t want to get into debates about matters like that; it does seem to us that a major effort ought to be made to make two changes, first, to convert the corporation into a fiduciary organization -- that is, one which is responsible for funds, which gives overall supervision but does not attempt to intrude itself into the operation of the system. Second, to create within what we call the Public Telecommunications Trust, the replacement organization, an encapsulated endowment activity, a kind of quasi-public foundation that would fund and support innovative programming, innovative work in journalism and in the arts. Secondly, we propose a level of funding for the system of the order of $1.2 billion, as compared to something of the order of $485 million now. Of that $1.2 billion we expect that $590 million would be raised by the stations themselves and the $570 million balance would come from the federal government. Most of that money would go to the stations themselves, $380 million. For every dollar raised through a matching-grant program by the stations, sixty-seven cents of federal money would be budgeted to support it. And that would trigger off thirty-three cents of funding for the endowment.
MacNEIL: I see. You also propose that a spectrum license fee be levied on commercial broadcasters. What`s the justification for that?
McGILL: There`s a general view, which we share unanimously, that the public airwaves are a very precious resource and that they have been used for the commercial benefit of a relatively limited group of people, not just commercial broadcasters but a whole array of business enterprises that send their data along the airwaves and do not pay for it. If you drill an oil well on federal land in the offshore area you pay for the right, if you graze your cows on federal property you pay for the right; why not pay for the right to use the public airwaves? I think that`s a controversial view, but it does seem to me to be sound public policy. And the commission believes that it might be possible to generate as much as $150 million to support public broadcasting in the future this way.
MacNEIL: So basically you`re saying more money administered by a somwhat different structure at the federal level would improve the standard of programming.
McGILL: That`s correct. And the substantial increase in resources coming out of the federal treasury would be partially offset by this spectrum use charge developed from commercial users.
MacNEIL: Well, those are your basic proposals; we`ll come back and flesh them out. Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: All right, now a reaction to those proposals from one of the leaders of public broadcasting, Newton Minow. Late chairman of the board of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, Mr. Minow is a Chicago attorney.
He was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration and coined the phrase "the vast wasteland" to describe television. Mr. Minow is with us tonight in the studios of Public Station WTTW in Chicago. First, Mr. Minow, what do you think of Dr. McGill`s and Carnegie II`s basic conclusions and recommendations in a general way?
NEWTON MINOW: Well, Jim, we`re in Chicago, which as you know has descended into the Ice Age this winter, and this is the first heartwarming feeling I`ve had for months and it`s come from the Carnegie Commission. We welcome the report with optimism and with gratitude. I think that Dr. McGill and his colleagues have made a very significant contribution to our future, and with a great deal of their recommendations I think we`re in very major agreement.
LEHRER: All right, let`s go to some specifics. Do you agree, first of all, that public broadcasting has some basic structuring flaws?
MINOW: Yes, I do; that`s been true over the last decade, but I think in any new institution you`re bound to have some. At the same time, I don`t think that they`re fatal. If you watched public television last night, for example, and saw us broadcast live from Kennedy Center the visit of the Vice Premier of China, a program which went by satellite to 900 million Chinese, saw the Vice Premier of China shaking hands with a seven-foot-tall Harlem Globetrotter, we`re not doing everything wrong, believe me. There are great moments, as Dr. McGill said, and I think there are more of them all the time.
LEHRER: Do you support their basic proposal for a trust to handle the money and a separate endowment to handle the programming development?
MINOW: In public broadcasting there`s no way that I can speak for the system. We have 280 diverse stations, and I can just give you my own personal view...
LEHRER: All right.
MINOW: Our feeling, I think, is that what the commission has proposed is pretty close to the view that we think the original Carnegie Commission intended. We think that the stations should be the ones who make the decisions under the law about broadcasting and not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So I think essentially we agree that a change in the structure of the corporation is in order.
LEHRER: Where would PBS fit into this mix under the Carnegie plan?
MINOW: Well, we`re not sure. PBS is a creature of the stations, and the stations themselves at their own initiative are undergoing a very intensive self-analysis, and I think the Carnegie report will help us to complete that. I regard the Carnegie Commission as having contributed a healing force to a lot of the difficulties of the past, and I look forward with great optimism to the future. The first Carnegie report Robin referred to as the bible; I`d say maybe that was the Old Testament and now we`re going into the New Testament and both should be read together, and I think that the new one may set the stage for us for the `80s and the `90s, just as the first one did for the `70s.
LEHRER: Do you feel that those 280 stations that PBS represents, and thus you represent, will basically agree with you that this is a good thing, the Carnegie report, and support the majority of it?
MINOW: I`ve been the chairman of PBS now for six months and I`ve learned that it`s pretty hard to predict, because we are truly a democratic organization in which everybody has one vote. But my sense of the opinion of the stations is that essentially we`re going to be with it. Furthermore, I think that the idea of the spectrum fee, which Congressman Van Deerlin has introduced in legislation in the Congress, is one that I think will help bring us together with the Congress perhaps in finding a better way to fund public broadcasting.
LEHRER: All right, Mr. Minow, you have just introduced our next guest. Thank you very much. Much of what Carnegie recommends, if it is to come off, will require action by the Congress, and that does mean -- in the House, at least -- Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, Democrat of California, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications. His subcommittee oversees matters involving broadcasting, including public broadcasting. Basically, what do you think of Carnegie`s work, Congressman?
Rep. LIONEL VAN DEERLIN: I was pleased with it, Jim. We know that the first Carnegie report did set the stage; it suggested a financing plan which no legislative body, popularly elected, probably would accept, which was a tax on home receiver sets. Now the new proposal has been for going along with a proposal that has already been offered in the House of Representatives, which is that all commercial users of frequency space should help share the load.
LEHRER: Is that a politically viable idea to get through Congress?
VAN DEERLIN: I think it is, and of course the public broadcasting industry itself, in all communities across the land, attracts influential local citizens to its boards, men who can attract both talent and money, men and women. We have moved in our committee in Congress to broaden the appeal of public broadcasting and broaden the responsibility and broaden the public participation.
LEHRER: Do you think the commercial networks will go along with this without a fight?
VAN DEERLIN: They`re not going to like it, but you`ve got to remember, Jim, that commercial broadcasting has managed to build a ten-billion dollar- revenue industry off the public`s airwaves-- space on the airwaves for which they pay not a dime.
LEHRER: What about the austerity theme that is now in effect in Congress and in the administration and elsewhere? Does this mean that this call for increased funding might fall by the wayside before it actually comes into enactment?
VAN DEERLIN: Talking as you are with a man who represents the state that gave us Proposition 13, that`s a particularly apt question. We are already funding public broadcasting at the federal level to the extent of $103 million a year; the administration asked for $200 million a year by 1982, and Congress has authorized that far ahead for $220 million a year. I think there`ll be some appeal in Congress in offsetting any additional costs with a new funding source: the spectrum use fee. I would also add the caveat that money alone is not the answer. We`ve got to have some structural changes, we`ve got to end the overlapping of duties and responsibilities and functions that have existed between the corporation and between the stations -- as with the stations, and it`s, I hope, something that can be accomplished with something such as the Carnegie Commission has proposed.
LEHRER: That`s what I was going to ask you. Do you think that the Carnegie solution, which is the trust and the endowment, is the solution to these structuring problems?
VAN DEERLIN: I have to ask myself on the initial reading -- and we have been in committee caucus all day, I haven`t had an opportunity to go into this thoroughly -- I wonder if an endowment encapsulated and a trust is going to relieve us totally of some of the bureaucratic rivalries and the duplications of effort that have occurred in CPB. I want to hear more testimony on this proposition, and it`s much to be hoped because there`s been far too much energy that`s gone down the drain in a medium that I think has, despite this, wide public support.
LEHRER: You mean you still could set up a situation where the endowment is fighting with the trust, which is fighting with PBS and also with NPR on the radio side: same thing, is what you`re suggesting, the possibility of that.
VAN DEERLIN: Sometimes, Jim, merely changing the name isn`t enough.
LEHRER: All right; thank you, Congressman. Robin?
MacNEIL: Public broadcasting, as Jim indicated at the beginning, has never been short of critics, constructive and otherwise. One of the liveliest is Marvin Kitman, TV writer for the Long Island daily newspaper News day. Mr. Kitman, do you think the Carnegie report published today hits tEe right problems?
MARVIN KITMAN: Well, certainly it`s very encouraging that they recognize that money is a major problem. Public television has been obsessed with the finding of money all these years.I particularly approve of the idea of having commercial broadcasting help pay for television. I was a little discouraged to see that they`re discussing this spectrum fee; I don`t think anybody`s going to know what that actually means, and I personally feel that commercial television has been getting a free ride all these years and not only should they start paying for public television now, I believe they should start paying retroactively. I believe they should be taxed all the way back twenty-five years, at least, for reparations to the American people; they`ve really committed crimes against the people. However, the Carnegie report doesn`t specifically mention how much we`re going to be taxing them...
MacNEIL: We heard a suggested figure of $150 million a year, possibly.
KITMAN: Well, I think that`s quite kind. I think the profits that have come out of commercial broadcasting with our public`s airwaves have been gross, if not obscene, over the last twenty-five years.
MacNEIL: Will more money solve the problems, as you see the problems?
KITMAN: Well, that`s the second basic problem. I don`t think money is the complete solution. Basically we have a problem where in the past ten years people in public television have not been learning the skills of making programs to any great extent; they`ve been so obsessed with raising money that if you just give them more money now, I don`t think they`ll know any better how to make programs, so I`m really alarmed at the prospect of just giving them money. I expect there`ll be an increase of trips to England, for example, to see what`s on television. So it`s kind of a built-in problem. Also, this establishment of the new entity, the trust fund or cartel or whatever it`s called, is going to create a problem because everybody now in public television, all the rival bureaucracies, are going to want to get into this trust; and I have a feeling it`s going to be the beginning of a hundred years` war of all the different factions fighting to get into the trust. I`ve seen many worried faces in public television today. It`s like D-day out there.
MacNEIL: What about the suggestion that the commission makes that by creating the public trust and having it appointed in a different way -- selected from a group of people not just political appointees -- it would make it more insulated and would create the kind of atmosphere that...
KITMAN: Well, the only thing is that the people they`re going to appoint to it are the same type people that were running the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service; there are no, like, real television viewers that will be appointed to this. The basic problem with public television is that it`s elitist and you -how many television viewers did they have on the Carnegie II, for ex ample? I mean, how much television time has anybody watched the auctions, for example, or the pledge week things that, according to Carnegie II, we`re going to have to have more of that because they see an expanded public input. But the thing about public television is that the ordinary people by and large do not watch public television. Whatever the statistics they`re now throwing around of Nielson ratings, yet, about how public television is growing, the majority of people do not watch public television; nor do they want to read about it.
MacNEIL: Let`s ask Dr. McGill about that. Would it be the same kind of people?
McGILL: No, I think not.
MacNEIL: How would it be different?
McGILL: Marvin has put his finger on something very important, and I heard Congressman Van Deerlin say the same thing, which is that while there is a major money problem -- that is, public broadcasting is chronically under funded and even starved -- the problem is not exclusively money, it`s leadership. And I tell you that if we get into a situation in which, in a successor organization, these warring factions continue to battle each other for the buck, they will effectively destroy any system that we propose.
MacNEIL: You don`t think he exaggerates the problem of warring factions.
McGILL: Warring factions are, I think, endemic to the arts, and public broadcasting is no exception.
KITMAN: See, there`s another faction that we`re not even talking about. Once you put into the system the people who make programs - the filmmakers, the documentary makers -- then you`re first going to see war. I mean, right now in the system they all have the same fundraising types. But these program makers are the real radicals. It`s going to be like putting a kidney into the system and the system is going to reject it. I mean, it`s not going to come out a nice kidney pie. And wars are going to start.
MacNEIL: Let`s ask Newton Minow about that, as the head of PBS. Mr. Minow?
MINOW: Well, the wars have been going on, but I think they`ve been going on in the past. There is new leadership at the corporation, in fact, only on the job a matter of a few weeks; and we have great confidence that the wars are over.. I do think that Carnegie is right in saying that there are some structural flaws, and as I said before, that`s bound to happen in anything new. The reforms suggested should make it clear that the corporation, or the trust, as it would be called, exists really to protect us from political influence and to protect our independence and to leave the broadcasters and the independent producers with the creative freedom they need, the journalistic freedom they need, to do their job. Unfortunately in the past, too often the corporation has become involved in programming, but as I say, I think that`s over with. The main thing that I feel is that public broadcasting, which exists not to sell but rather to serve, is growing in this country; it`s growing very rapidly. Two thirds of all the homes in America-- two thirds of all the homes in America -- are tuning regularly to public television. We have as many as ninety-seven percent of the children in inner cities watching public television. So I don`t think the situation is bad; it can be much, much better, but by no means would I say that we`re doing a bad job. I think we`re doing a better job each year.
MacNEIL: Let`s ask the only political influence present on this program, Congressman Van Deerlin: do you agree that as part of a shakeup in structures a more politically insulated structure is necessary?
VAN DEERLIN: If I could add one other disappointment on a provisional basis to the report, it is that it will continue to rely on regular annual funding by Congress. Obviously, I have a high opinion of Congress, but Congress is peopled with 435 Lionel Van Deerlins, and they come from a lot of different directions, and I just don`t want to see anybody with the regular annual oversight of an industry which, if it`s going to provide the usefulness in public events coverage which it can provide at a time of day and in a manner which commercial broadcasting cannot or will not provide, I think that the First Amendment protection is going to have to be just as strong here as it is in newspaper publishing. And I don`t think you get that by sticking to the annual appropriations progress of Congress. There are too many political types who are going to be looking over their shoulders and asking questions about that program last week that was about abortion or school busing or something, that they didn`t happen to like.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Dr. McGill, as I read the report, you-all came down foursquare against the idea of public broadcasting becoming a fourth network. But does not the trust and the endowment create essentially the same thing, two strong central bodies that will in effect control the money and the programming nationally?
McGILL: Yes, they do. The balancing of the rights of stations that exist in every congressional district. ..well, really, every congressional district in the country -- and that can develop rather immense political force -- against the need to produce quality programming of a directed sort is a very subtle art. So in our judgment you need a little bit of both. It`s very difficult. I went into this whole effort with the view that what we really needed in this country was a replica of the BBC. I thought that that would be easy to do, and I`ve disabused myself of that view. More than half the licensees in this country are school districts. They are diversely organized, they`re geographically diverse; I sense that we`ve got to build this system out of the bedrock of the existing structure, which is the diverse set of licensees, and at the same time we`ve got to be able to provide them with innovative programming capability and with some amount of political insulation that enables us to do work of a quality that is comparable to that of the BBC. We believe that can be done. It is not an easy problem. I want to reiterate the need to develop a structure that is sufficiently responsive to a diverse set of national needs so that it can attract out a leadership that can overcome these factional disputes. I`ve lived in the midst of factions all my adult life in the academic life, and I`m not concerned about that.
LEHRER: How does that sound to you, Mr. Kitman?
KITMAN: Well, I`m sorry that I raised factionalism here. One of my major disappointments with the report was that it was so conservative in a sense. Dr. McGill mentioned the BBC, and as I recall there`s a BBC 1 and a BBC-2; I was kind of hoping that the report would establish a second system. It seems to me that what public television has needed all these years is competition. We have three commercial networks, and if competition is so good for them, then it certainly should be brought into the public broadcasting area. And it`s kind of disappointing that -- I`m oversimplifying, of course, which is much more than the American people are going to do; they`re not going to pay attention to this at all -- but it certainly would have been a healthy idea if we had left the existing public broadcasting system, with its reliance on British programming, and if we had helped establish a second public broadcasting system where all of the descendants and all of the out groups could have gathered and used facilities...
MacNEIL: That`s an interesting idea, but we have to leave it there, Mr. Kitman, I`m sorry. Thank you very much, Newton Minow in Chicago; Congressman Van Deerlin in Washington. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Thank you, Dr. McGill, Mr. Kitman. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- The Carnegie Commission
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- The main topic of this episode is The Carnegie Commission. The guests are William McGill, Marvin Kitman, Lionel Van Deerlin, Newton Minow. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Carnegie Commission,” 1979-01-30, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-707wm14c2g.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Carnegie Commission.” 1979-01-30. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-707wm14c2g>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Carnegie Commission. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-707wm14c2g