It’s new management but the same old General Motors. Lagging behind its domestic competitors, Ford and Chrysler, on the critical goal of full front seat air bag installation, the bureaucratic behemoth stiffed a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) “Frontline” documentary show on the shaky auto giant by refusing repeated requests to be interviewed. Then a few days ago, right after the October 12th filming of the 90 minute program called “The Heartbeat of America”, General Motors issued a statement to its employees saying it will “reevaluate” its multimillion commitment to PBS. No, it was not meant to be a threat to PBS for allowing a semi-critical, semi-praiseworthy documentary on GM to air, insisted Bruce MacDonald, GM vice president of corporate communications. Just, one supposes, another example of GM’s brilliant sense of timing.
MacDonald played a prolonged game of “maybe” and “we’ll see” regarding interview requests with Frontline’s producers for months. Companies often do this in order to find out what kind of program the producers have in mind and attempt to shape the final product. It also enables companies to say “we told you so”, when the documentary is finished, as a way of charging bias and justifying non-cooperation.
Clearly, GM did not like the show, despite a almost mawkish and prolonged Frontline praise of the much troubled Saturn automobile and Saturn plant. What nettled GM was the focus on such nearly forgotten chapters in GM’s dark past as its indifference to practical safety engineering and its notorious conspiracy to destroy mass transit.
The latter case was a conviction of GM and its coconspirators in federal district court in Chicago in 1947. The Justice Department’s antitrust division had charged GM with criminal violations of the antitrust laws by joining with a tire and auto company to buy up electric trolley systems starting during the Thirties and replace them with bus lines.
GM bought up trolley systems, ripped out the tracks in over 25 cities, including the largest electrified mass transit system in the world that was operating around Los Angeles. The result was the strengthening of the “highway lobby’s” power in blocking mass transit projects and the spread of pollution-choking, gas and time-wasting bumper-to-bumper traffic days in and day out for millions of Americans.
For this major antitrust conspiracy, General Motors was fined $5000 and a key GM official was fined $1.00 in that Chicago courtroom. Present day GM officials don’t like the people to be informed or reminded of the way our surface transport system was affected by this corporate crime.
PBS stations are increasingly reliant on and responsive to corporate funding. What used to be a logo and a name of the sponsoring company at the end of the program now has expanded to a couple of sentences about the company. The trend is toward conventional ad copy, though without the lurid and noisy accouterments that commercial ads embody.
Anybody who doesn’t think that corporate money for public broadcasting inhibits the content of programming should talk with ex PBS station programmers. One of the most daring, the Boston PBS television station, felt the heat, going back to a series of programs on company towns in the late Sixties on which we assisted.
Companies do more than send checks to support existing programs. They work with various PBS stations in launching them. The Erie, PA, PBS station did just that in a series highly slanted to corporate positions, that was played on many PBS stations over a decade ago. A sleazy, anti-victim documentary, narrated by Walter Cronkite, and funded by business monies, played recently on several, but not most, PBS stations. Its propaganda: society needs to place more restrictions on the long-held rights of wrongfully injured Americans to seek justice in courts against the perpetrators of their harms.
PBS is supposed to be free of commercial motives and self-censorships. Yet, isn’t it remarkable that right-winger, William F. Buckley’s program, Firing Line, has been on for over 20 years and there has been no counterpart from the liberal or progressive side.
And, so it goes. Yet, for GM it doesn’t go far enough. The company is “reconsidering” its PBS contributions. The sensitive antennae of many PBS executives, unfortunately, will get the message.