POSTED ON NOVEMBER 9, 2011:
Closed minds and personal agendas aim at the airwaves
The college-educated woman was explaining to her Sunday School class how she and her husband restrict what their elementary school-aged children watch on television.
"We won't go to Disney World, either," she said, emphatically. "You know, Mickey Mouse is satanic."
I nearly fell out of my chair.
She never really could explain what she meant, or why she considered Mickey evil, so it was easy to dismiss her remark as a momentary lapse into Crackpotland. Except...
In the two decades since, these bizarre kinds of assertions -- my personal favorite was Jerry Falwell insisting the children's television Teletubby character known as Tinky Winky is gay -- no longer seem to be so isolated.
In fact, it's now mainstream if you consider the Oklahoma Legislature to be representative of us as a people.
How so? It's this kind of thinking that is at the root of an effort by some lawmakers to de-fund the state's public television network -- the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA).
Oh, they haven't publicly uttered statements as preposterous as Falwell's, but they are clearly like-minded -- comrades in a 21st Century Thought Police that cannot abide anyone who doesn't think and speak like they do.
Leading the legislative charge is state Rep. Leslie Osborn, a Tuttle Republican who insists her opposition is philosophically bottom-line: The cash-strapped state has higher priorities than OETA.
But the more you listen to GOP opponents decry public television, the more you realize that their real beef is that OETA's programming doesn't parrot their ultra-conservative, anti-science, often theocratic worldviews.
At a recent legislative hearing, Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus, complained that OETA carried a national program on -- gasp! -- evolution. And Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, asserted OETA's news programs reflect a -- surprise, surprise -- pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias.
Two quick thoughts:
First, as a Christian and regular churchgoer, I'm not inclined to view the Bible and science as mutually exclusive. I'm fascinated by theologians who can help provide insight into the Bible's mysteries and by scientists who are unearthing clues to our origin as a species.
Why are so many so threatened these days by science? Is it simply a knee-jerk response, born of an anti-intellectual gene that seems present in many of our fellow Sooners?
Second, as a card-carrying lefty, my political radar often hones in on what I regard as public television's none-too-subtle attempts to placate the noisy right by giving conservatives a pass on some hot-button issues.
My experience is, if both sides are unhappy, it probably means public television is doing an excellent job of playing it straight.
Osborn's claims that the state cannot afford $3.8 million for OETA -- out of a nearly $6 billion overall state budget -- ends up looking like she's searching for any excuse to pull the plug on an operation she loathes.
It's a perfectly fine idea to debate what government should and shouldn't do. In fact, we'd be a much healthier state and nation if the general public would take the time to get engaged with elected officials in a serious, adult dialogue about what we can and can't afford -- as well as what we consider to be important and unimportant.
Pictured above: Liberal Media Propaganda AKA "The Lawrence Welk Show"
So, if Osborn and her ilk don't think OETA -- with Big Bird and Lawrence Welk, Nature and NewsHour, American Experience and Antiques Road Show -- ought to be a government function, then we ought to be looking at everything not related to such basic services as education, highways, child welfare and criminal justice.
So, for example, how about we take a closer look at taxpayer dollars steered in recent years by the Republican legislative majority into an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives? Or into a so-called Marriage Initiative aimed at reducing the divorce rate? Or into billions of dollars in tax breaks for corporations and tax cuts for the state's wealthiest?
In other words, Osborn and Co. can't be allowed to willy-nilly steer taxpayers' money to their pet projects while gutting, for example, those with which they have a political beef or that they consider expendable because it serves a less advantaged population.
According to OETA's 2011 annual report, Oklahoma taxpayers are annually dunned a whopping $1.12 each for public television -- which reaches 95 percent of the state's population.
Interestingly, OETA was the only news operation to cover the Legislature gavel-to-gavel. Frankly, the best hope of attracting the state's commercial TV stations to the Capitol would be a nearby grass fire or triple-ax murder. By contrast, OETA's reporters and cameras were there everyday, covering the news, asking the tough questions, shining light on the activities of our elected officials.
Here's a dirty little secret the Republican leadership -- notice I specified "leadership" -- doesn't want you to know: They are forever bloviating about transparency, but it's really just a political slogan.
Their grumbling over OETA's omnipresence, and its newscasts, has intensified in recent years as the GOP solidified control over state government. Why? It's amazing the deals you can strike when no one is looking.
There's no question GOP lawmakers are developing plans to eliminate taxpayer funding for OETA -- 39 percent of the network's $10.2 million budget. What will be the impact on Oklahomans who rely on OETA for programming and for civic understanding?
"I take (programming options) for granted living in a metropolitan area," said Rep. Jeannie McDaniel, a Tulsa Democrat who regards OETA as a vehicle to help "educate people in regions where they don't have the economic advantage to see more TV or it's just not available."
"As a legislator I don't feel that's my role to decide what people can and can't watch...You can turn the dial. You don't have to watch the shows you don't want.
I won't pretend I tune into OETA every day, but I'm glad it's there. OETA connects us as a people -- even if we don't tune in regularly -- whether we're from Boise City or Broken Bow, Miami or Hollis, Blackwell or Thackerville.
We get so much for our $1.12 annual commitment. Why would lawmakers focus on this meager appropriation when really big money is at stake?
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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