The War Between the Blue and Red
I'm 50 years old. When I want to impress someone younger than myself with how old that is, I tell them, "I'm so old that when 'Sesame Street' began, I was too old to watch it."
It's true. "Sesame Street" premiered on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television stations on Nov. 10, 1969. I was nine years old at the time, and although I confess I watched a little "Sesame Street" now and then, I knew in my heart that Big Bird and Cookie Monster were aiming at a younger demographic.
The same thing happened a few years later when public television stations began airing "The Electric Company," a "Sesame Street"-like series for older kids. I kept missing the boat by being two or three grades older than their audiences!
Fortunately, not all PBS offerings over the years have been for kids. And one of my favorites of all time is coming back this week.
Beginning on Sunday, April 3, many PBS stations around the country will broadcast the entire series of Ken Burns' documentary, "The Civil War," over five consecutive nights. The presentation marks this month's 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
If you missed it the first time it aired in 1990, you might have a hard time believing me when I say this 10-plus hour documentary filled with sepia-toned photographs, old-time string music, and voice-overs by the likes of Jason Robards and Morgan Freeman is one of the most exciting things ever aired on television.
In the 21 years since it originally aired, "The Civil War" has become a favorite of American history teachers and has been used free of charge in public schools.
"This great documentary can be used to engage students in active discussions around the issues, events and legacy of the Civil War," said Dr. Rose Martin, Blue Ridge PBS director of educational services. "By using video from the series to stimulate learning, students will better understand the strengths, weaknesses and challenges involved in interpreting and appreciating the past."
Since PBS first aired "The Civil War," PBS and Ken Burns have successfully collaborated on other documentaries about quintessential American subjects, such as baseball, jazz and our National Parks.
Recently, PBS and its radio counterpart, National Public Radio (NPR) have been under attack from a number of individuals and organizations who feel that they have: a) outworn their usefulness in an age of cable TV and satellite radio, and/or b) present programming with a liberal bias.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Congress voted 228-192 to approve a measure that would cut all federal funding to NPR. The vote came down mostly along party lines with Republicans voting to ax public radio.
It is expected the bill will have a harder time hurdling the Senate, and President Obama has promised to veto any such bill that lands on his desk.
"This is something that is long past due," said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC). "Officials at NPR have said themselves that they do not need this funding. So, we're simply going to accommodate their opinion."
Rep. Foxx is both right and wrong on this matter. It is true that NPR receives only 6 percent of its funding from federal, state and local taxes through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is estimated that about 2 percent of public radio budgets nationwide come from federal taxpayers.
So, what's the big deal about that 2 percent? We here in the newspaper industry have suffered tremendous losses in revenue during the past few years, and we aren't demanding federal money. Why should they?
Here's the thing, NPR radio stations can be heard by 93 percent of all Americans, for free, on their radios or through their computers. Public stations in places like New York and San Francisco have no problem filling their coffers during on-the-air pledge drives that can literally reach tens of millions of listeners.
Public radio stations in more rural areas, however, are the ones that need those federal dollars the most. They are also the ones serving Americans with fewer radio options when it comes to informative programming and up-to-date local, national and international news. That same situation is faced by public television stations in rural areas.
As to the charge that public television and public radio have become too left-leaning to be relevant, that says more to me about the accuser than about programs like "Antiques Roadshow," "Nova" and "All Things Considered."
When you take into account the trillions of dollars we have spent on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, the $50 million we will save annually by neglecting two of the greatest educational resources America has ever invented is a drop in a very large bucket.
I would prefer to spend $50 million of our federal tax dollars wisely than to save them foolishly.