WASHINGTON -- In 1967 Lyndon Johnson added yet another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of national perfection: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was born. Public television was a dubious idea even when concocted as a filigree on the Great Society. Why should government subsidize the production and distribution of entertainment and, even worse, journalism? Even if there were -- has there ever been? -- a shortage of either in America, is it government's duty to address all cultural shortages?
Today, with iPod earphone cords dangling from millions of heads and movies flooding into homes where they jostle for plasma screen time with video games, Americans are entertaining themselves into inanition. Furthermore, journalism and imitations of it have become social smog. Even in airport concourses you are bombarded by televised human volcanoes verbally assaulting each other about the ``news," broadly -- very broadly -- defined to include Kobe Bryant's presence on Michael Jackson's witness list.
In 1967 public television did at least increase, for many persons, the basic television choices from three -- CBS, NBC, ABC -- to four. Not that achieving some supposedly essential minimum was, or is, the government's business. In today's 500-channel environment, public television is a preposterous relic.
The Public Broadcasting Service recently tried an amazingly obtuse and arrogant slogan: ``If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" What was the antecedent of the pronoun ``it"? Presumably ``culture" or ``seriousness" or ``relevance." Or something. But in a television universe that now includes the History Channel, Biography, A&E, Bravo, National Geographic, Disney, TNT, BBC America, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, The Outdoor Channel, Noggin, Nickelodeon and scads of other cultural and information channels, what is the antecedent?
Now PBS is airing some HBO films. There is a nifty use of tax dollars -- showing HBO reruns. Which contribute how to ``diversity"?
In 1967 public television's enthusiasts were ahead of the curve of cultural inanity, making frequent use of the d-word, which required several more decades to become the great signifier of cultural correctness. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission hailed public television's promise of ``more diversity" and a Carnegie report foresaw increased ``diversities." Thirty-eight years later, 500 channels mock public television as crucial to diversity.