People like you : the culture wars and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting




Brown, David Dean

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In the half-century since Lyndon Johnson’s creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), no other Great Society program has been so bitterly and perpetually contested. PBS and NPR, the two institutions founded by the CPB in 1970, have been the focus of heated and repeated battles between conservatives and liberals over charges of bias and alleged use of taxpayer funds to advance social and political agendas. This study uses sociologist James Davidson Hunter’s (1991) framework of the culture wars to explore the roots and long-term impact of these battles on public broadcasting and, by extension, American journalism. The culture wars framework asserts that our political debates have devolved into bitter hostilities over competing systems of moral understanding on a wide range of subjects, including the role of media and government in the lives of Americans. Through an analysis of original planning memoranda and formerly classified documents at the Johnson Presidential Library, as well as in-depth, elite interviews with persons directly involved, this study concludes that the culture wars have been largely artificial, calculated for economic and other unstated objectives, but ultimately (and somewhat surprisingly) undermined by co-partisans. Despite the culture wars’ failure to reduce funding for PBS and NPR, this study finds that they had a profound and disparate impact on the structure, mission, and journalistic efforts of both institutions. For an era in which Americans are taking sides over what has been called Donald Trump’s “culture war presidency,” this study also offers insights on how future culture war battles may be decoded.


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