A journalist who writes about a subject in which he has a direct personal stake is obliged, without exception, to make that fact known to readers.
Therefore I confess at the outset that my support for public broadcasting, and my belief in the importance of its mission, though perfectly sincere, is to a degree self-interested.
Since the mid-1990s, I have collaborated with our city’s public TV station, KCPT, Channel 19, on several feature projects. The association began almost by accident.
In 1991, I returned from a Siberian river expedition with 57 hours of videotape shot by a professional cameraman I’d employed for the adventure and contacted some local commercial TV stations about the possible production of a documentary.
There were no takers. Such a quantity of footage, I was told, would mean a massive editing chore. And there was no logical way one of their station personalities could appear in the show.
It seemed the project had no future. But then the unpredictable happened.
At a dinner party with friends, someone asked if there was anything about the Siberian journey I could show. Only a 10-minute preview tape, I replied. Well, they said, let’s see it.
I drove the few blocks home, returned with the tape and put it in the machine.
It played. The last frame faded to black. And instantly a voice in the room was heard to say: “We want to produce that!”
The speaker was someone I’d met for the first time that evening. He was Bill Reed, newly arrived in the city from Washington to assume the leadership of KCPT.
And in that almost offhand way, there began what has been, for me, nearly a 20-year association with the station.
My colleague in editing the documentary — in effect, my teacher — was a wonderfully experienced broadcaster, the late John Masterman. And as someone whose occupation until then had been exclusively with the written word, I found it exhilarating to see the greater power that could be achieved by the mating of words to images and sound.
Since then I’ve had the privilege to work with the staff at KCPT on four full-length programs and several shorter projects, and we’re now into the editing of another documentary — a look at how the lives of Russians have changed in the two decades since the end of communist rule.
But public broadcasting is at present under serious threat.
In this time of prolonged economic distress and punishing state budget deficits, Missouri has drastically reduced its longtime support for public stations. Kansas is all but certain to do the same.
And in the U.S. House of Representatives, some in the new Republican majority have their knives whetted for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which they see as a vexing nest of despised liberals.
They are untroubled by a national survey indicating that a lopsided 69 percent majority — including 56 percent of Republicans — opposes an end to the funding.
It probably is true that a quite large proportion of the audience for public television is of a liberal bent. But plainly there also are a great many conservatives who prefer a broadcast fare more thoughtful and stimulating than can be found in the ubiquitous TV fitness classes and incessant rant of Fox News.
I have seen a calculation that the per capita cost of public broadcasting amounts to $1.38 a year and that ending federal support would mean a saving of less than three ten-thousandths of 1 percent of the federal budget.
What’s clear, then, is that the motive of the far-right-wing cabal in the House is purely political and has nothing whatever to do with fiscal responsibility. The attempt to destroy an essential medium of public discourse must not be allowed to succeed.