There’s an argument to be made that President Richard Nixon’s downfall in 1974 wasn’t only because his illegal behavior was called out by intrepid journalists and prosecuted by Congress and the Supreme Court. Another important factor was the role of public broadcasting.
PBS should be performing a similar national service right now. As the gavel dropped Tuesday morning, members of the House of Representatives are just beginning their investigation of the January 6 insurrection. As their inquiry continues, public TV should make available those hearings that are open and public to as wide a percentage of the American population as possible. Nothing less than the fate of democracy may be at stake.
In 1973, PBS made the crucial decision to carry the hearings of the Senate’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities—popularly known as the Watergate committee—twice every day. Like the commercial networks, PBS carried the testimony live, as it was happening. But what set public TV apart was that they repeated each day’s proceedings in prime time every night—putting aside the usual schedule and giving working Americans with 9-to-5 jobs a chance to sit back and see for themselves how the president had abused democracy in the name of power and personal privilege.
The impact was enormous and there was a certain fearful symmetry at play—like every GOP White House since, Nixon and his gang had done their damnedest to destroy public broadcasting by trying to zero out funding to public television and radio. Public TV correspondent Sander Vanocur was among those on the infamous Nixon enemies list.
As I’ve have written before, with my friend and colleague Bill Moyers, the PBS coverage, produced by NPACT, the National Public Affairs Center for Television, was a seminal moment for public TV—the nighttime repeats vastly increasing its average audience and triggering a boom in fundraising for the service. It made PBS a household name; to this day, legislators tend to ignore presidential attempts to scrap its federal allotment, not wishing to offend voters whose kids adore Big Bird and Daniel Tiger, nor willing to eliminate the countrywide platform provided congressional members by National Public Radio and such nightly programming as the superb PBS NewsHour.
The current January 6 probe is not the first time I (with Moyers) have suggested that PBS take a moral stance on behalf of the republic and show their commitment to democracy by dropping everything in prime time and carry a rebroadcast of crucial congressional hearings. In November 2019, we appealed to the executives in charge at public television to act as they had during Watergate and air in primetime a repeat broadcast of each day’s testimony before the House impeachment inquiry, testimony that led to the first of Donald Trump’s two impeachments. We urged that those hearings be repeated on our nation’s PBS stations at night, in addition to live broadcasts during the day. We believed this so strongly we even took out a full-page ad in a Friday edition of The New York Times.
Instead, it was decided to air the repeat telecast on PBS World, a low audience, digital subchannel normally reserved for repeats of documentaries and other public affairs programs. Difficult to find for many; impossible to find, in fact, if you are one of the millions of Americans who still only watch TV via an antenna that picks up broadcast signals.
Despite the failure of our initial request in 2019, we were told by people in the know that we had some real impact on public television policy regarding coverage of the hearings. Now I’m suggesting it again. Public television executives should not only air live these first hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, they also should air a repeat every night of the hearings on the nation’s PBS stations—in a broadcast format that every single American can see.
They may say, as they did in 2019, that this would be disruptive to the broadcast schedules of public stations across the nation, and that there plenty of other ways via cable, satellite and online that those who want to can view the hearings at any time they want.
Yes, it will preempt the regular schedule but it’s not just about a programing decision. You would be making a statement about a moment of national peril unlike anything since the Civil War. The need to get to the bottom of the motives and plans for the January 6 assault is imperative if we are to remain a civil society of laws and truth. Let the inquiry be an open book.
Questions abound: Committee member Stephanie Murphy asked, “The people who showed up on January—how were they motivated? How did they pay for their travel and their equipment? How are they organized? Are they still driven to trying to change political outcomes through political violence?
“… A lot of authoritarian countries were democracies before the autocrat took over. When you work on these issues overseas, one commonality between successful coups is that there was inevitably an unsuccessful coup first.”
By not giving this story the fullest attention it deserves, the Public Broadcasting Service unintentionally may be serving the partisan interests of the extremist wing of the Republican Party, which would have the fatal events around and leading up to January 6 thrown down the memory hole. At a time when PBS and its member stations across the country pride themselves as one of the few remaining independent voices for accurate and thorough reporting, public television’s reputation for trust, reliability and integrity must be upheld, not playing into the hands of those who would see democracy die with one razor sharp lie after another; those who would rather misinform and deceive America’s citizens.
In a 1966 letter to the first Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, the essayist EB White described his vision of the many things public television could be if it realized its full potential. “It should be our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot,” he wrote. “It should restate and clarify the social dilemma and the political pickle. Once in a while it does, and you get a quick glimpse of its potential.”
It used to be that public broadcasters had EB White’s words emblazoned into their consciences as resolutely as the Pledge of Allegiance. Our country has never been in a political pickle like the one we’re in now. Even though Donald Trump and his party no longer hold the presidency—for the moment—the whisper of the ax can be heard; it’s not far away at all. Despite his six months out of office, you hear it in the frenzy of Trump’s rallies; his rambling, rhetorical bluster; the constant lies and the overwhelming self-aggrandizement and addiction to the perks of power with none of the responsibilities.
Today’s public television can help in the fight against authoritarianism and tyranny—or it can punt and continue to schedule doo-wop concerts, series where experts assess the monetary value of Aunt Margaret’s antique vase or bouncy self-help gurus who reassure us that good fortune and good health are just around the corner. Most of these are not necessarily unworthy, and yes, the Newhour is providing live coverage of the hearings. There are many series of great interest and merit, some of which have been looking into the Capitol riot. But these are difficult times and public broadcasters must rise to the challenge. Start airing the January 6 inquiry in prime time; speak up for your sake and ours.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.