America - Andrew Stephen watches TV with the White House
Having frightened the mainstream press, and networks such as CBS, into compliance with its right-win
If you visit the White House these days, you find that the television screens scattered throughout the building are tuned to one station: the Fox News Network, the far-right news channel with the slogan "Fair and balanced", which has become the official voice of the Bush administration. This choice reflects a similarly jeering, insincere cockiness among its own members. They now have their very own nationwide television station that beams out nothing but their preferred versions of reality, and believe they are therefore free to dispense triumphalist V-signs at the rest of the world.
Not so long ago, this attitude extended only to newspapers and magazines. Broadcasting was still sacrosanct. I once went into the vice-president's office to see Dan Quayle - and, ludicrously, the only thing I could see on his desk was a copy of that day's Washington Times, a gruesomely bad, far-right newspaper owned by the Moonies that has never had more than a tiny circulation. But by promoting Fox News - while denigrating the rest of the media as biased and "liberal" - the Bush administration has shifted the centre of political gravity way to the right. The boringly centrist stations, such as the three networks - ABC, NBC and CBS - meekly accept that they are riddled with left-wing bias, along with other supposed pinko bastions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. And they are all resolved to do something about it, by tailoring their news to a perspective more in keeping with the extreme mood.
Now the Bush administration has a new target: public broadcasting. When I first came to live in the US, I would rely on National Public Radio and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on the Public Broadcasting Service for news; then, and still today, there were no better news services on US radio or television. But because NPR and PBS - like the BBC - are partly financed by public funds, the administration wields an axe over them, and they have duly begun the familiar migration to the right in what, in their case, is literally a life-or-death (but ultimately doomed) battle to try to appease Bush and co.
Public broadcasting in the US is almost four decades old and was the brainchild of Lyndon B Johnson, who set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967; its two wings, PBS and NPR, followed in 1969 and 1970. Richard Nixon did his best to knife public broadcasting at its outset, by seeing to it that PBS and NPR consisted of hundreds of loosely affiliated, separate radio and television stations that each needed to raise the lion's share of its revenues. This year, $386.8m (£205m) of public funding goes to the CPB; at the last count, there were 176 public television and 390 public radio stations, reaching 94 million and 26 million Americans a week, respectively.
The way the administration operates, though, is not simply to rush in and threaten to withdraw funding - although it is seeking to cut the CPB budget by $60m this year. It is to move in, infiltrate, and seize control. In 2003, it appointed a right-wing Republican, Kenneth Y Tomlinson - a former boss of Voice of America and Reader's Digest - to take over the CPB.
Its president, Kathleen Cox, resigned last month; she was temporarily replaced by Ken Ferree, who had championed deregulation at the Federal Communications Commission, and cheerfully admits that he rarely listens to NPR or watches PBS ("I do the internet news stuff all day long, so by the time I get to the Lehrer thing . . . it's slow . . . akin to Shakespeare"). His permanent replacement is likely to be Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee and an assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration.
Tomlinson meanwhile asked Karl Rove, deputy White House chief of staff, for his help in changing a requirement that half the CPB board consist of people with practical experience in radio or television; there is now no such requirement and the way is free to pack the board with right-wingers. Then Tomlinson appointed two "ombudsmen" to review programming - one far, far to the right and the other a mainstream former TV reporter for NBC and CNN (thus establishing a supposed new centre that is midway between these two - a familiar tactic). The guidelines for the ombudsmen were drawn up by Mary Catherine Andrews, who came directly from the White House, where she had been under the watchful eye of Rove.
Direct interference with programming then began in earnest, too. Without telling his board, Tomlinson spent $10,000 for an outside consultant to keep track of the political leanings of guests on a regular PBS programme, NOW with Bill Moyers, fronted by the veteran PBS broadcaster, who was a former press secretary to LBJ. The report divided Moyers's guests into categories such as "anti-Bush" or "anti-DeLay" and came back with findings that, yes, the show had terrible "liberal" leanings. A weary Moyers finally resigned in February, after more than three decades as a PBS regular, saying that Tomlinson had mounted a "vendetta" against him.
Then Tomlinson set about recruiting Tucker Carlson, a young, bow-tied champion of the right, and simultaneously raised millions to start a news discussion show called The Wall Street Journal Editorial Report - headed by contributors from the far-right editorial pages of that newspaper. Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, then furiously protested that an animated PBS cartoon rabbit named Buster was about to be shown visiting two lesbians - and PBS promptly withdrew the offending episode from distribution.
That, I think, is probably the most dispiriting feature of this right-wingisation of American life. The mainstream media lie down quiescently before the right-wing onslaught, accepting the agenda as an irresistible force laid before them. It is, somehow, an acknowledgment that the right is stronger and tougher than them, able to tear down lives and jobs at the mere whisper of a word of disapproval from the likes of Rove, Tom DeLay, or Tomlinson; if there is the slightest concession from the far right that Fox is championing their views in the guise of news, the response is always that the "liberals" have left-wing equivalents like the New York Times and Washington Post.
Never far away from all this, I feel, is the destructive figure of Rupert Murdoch - doubtless smirking with pleasure over the demise of public broadcasting in both the UK and US, and the simultaneous (and hardly coincidental) success of his soaraway Fox channels. The output from his empire continues to addict countless millions, like cheap beer or drugs; and, inevitably, that is always cited here as the justification for its existence in the first place - that it is meeting an unmet proletarian demand.
What was hardly predictable was that the lowering of standards and integrity would have such visible, unashamed champions in the White House; hitherto, compliant politicians had been furtive in their positioning, in the manner of a Thatcher or a Blair. Now it is out in the open. The Fox networks and the Bush administration each fulfil a need in the other: to the Fox Television shareholders, the benefits are obvious. For the administration, the skewering of reality enables it to proceed in ignorance and wilful blindness. Which is why those White House TVs are tuned, day in, day out, to just one station.