By David Rosenthal
IT'S no secret that public television, good old PBS, is in big trouble these days, structurally, artistically and financially.
While viewers leave the Big Three commercial networks like rats from sinking ships, they haven't fled to PBS. In cabled households across the nation, for example, less than 2 percent of the audience watches PBS programming on a given night.
Which is very sad. Because while Arts & Entertainment, Bravo and other high-brow cable channels with more money consistently beat PBS at its own cultural game now days, they do not outdo public TV when it comes to thought. If you want to watch television and think -- an admittedly quirky notion -- PBS is about the only place you can do it on a regular basis.
Tonight is a perfect example of that on the Bay Area's two major public stations: KTEH (Ch. 54) runs a startlingly good hour about the high cost of defense called "Defending America: The Price We Pay," while both KTEH and KQED (Ch. 9) begin Bill Moyers' new nightly interview series, "World of Ideas."
Watch them both and you'll come away seeing how good television can be when it is pointed in the right direction.
San Jose State professor Bob Gliner and KTEH's Blake McHugh have certainly done that with "Defending America," which airs at 10 tonight.
The program is a clear, no-nonsense look at how and why we spend -- and waste -- so many billions on defense. It's the kind of discussion George Bush and Michael Dukakis ought to be having with the American people instead of squabbling over the Pledge of Allegiance or who is more in favor of "Star Wars."
Since $250 a month of the average family's tax bill goes to defense spending, how and why that money is spent is of vital interest to all of us.
In Silicon Valley, the program says, the Pentagon spends $3,700 for each and every resident on research, development and manufacture of implements of war, the second highest community figure in the nation.
No one, of course, wants to see us undefended. We learned in World War II that the cost of being unprepared is high indeed.
But the cost of letting defense companies belly up to the public trough may be even higher.
Although, lamentably, it doesn't cite a source, "Defending America" says that 76,000 new jobs are created for every billion dollars spent on defense.
That same billion dollars, however, when spent on mass transit, can create 92,000 jobs. It can create 139,000 jobs in the health-care industry and a whopping 187,000 jobs in education.
The figures become even more appalling when you realize that job creation is one of the prime motivators for defense spending.
Even a Pentagon critic such as Rep. Don Edwards, D-San Jose, justifies FMC's troubled Bradley Fighting Vehicle being built in his district by saying that if it's going to be built, it might as well be here.
Gliner and McHugh interview those in the defense industry who support the current system and the huge expenditure of money it entails. These people say that charges of widespread corruption are exaggerated, but their arguments pale in the light of the recent Pentagon scandal.
Dina Resor, who heads a Washington procurement watchdog group, for example, contends that the current revolving door between the Pentagon and defense companies "could corrupt even a Boy Scout" and is responsible for enormous waste.
Former Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque, once part of the military-industrial complex and now a severe and quite credible critic, says that our whole way of life is jeopardized by people thinking only of what is best for Silicon Valley or Boston, instead of the whole country.
''We have the best country in the world," he says. "But we're going throw it away if we keep dumping so much money down this rat hole called military spending."
Gliner has produced several other documentaries, such as "Russia: Off the Record" and "Cruising Through High School" with McHugh and other KTEH staffers, but this is far and away his best work. It lays out both the problem and some solutions in fine detail.
It lacks the slickness and musical accompaniment of higher- budget efforts elsewhere, but as they say on that diet potato chip commercial, "You won't miss what you're missing." "Defending America" is first-rate television.
So is Bill Moyers' new series, which will appear each weeknight at 7:30 on KQED and at midnight on KTEH for the next 10 weeks or so.
The idea here is a simple one. Find interesting people and talk to them.
Moyers does that tonight with filmmaker and deposed Columbia studio head David Puttnam and Tuesday night with environmental scientist and national security adviser Jessica Tuchman Mathews. While neither of them is a household name, they have something important to say, Puttnam about the power and point of film making and Mathews about the terrifying things that appear to be happening to the climate and the environment.
While Puttnam's altruism is inspiring, Mathews' grasp of the horrible challenge ahead to preserve life on this planet is mind-boggling. This is a woman who ought to become part of the next administration, no matter who is elected.
Future subjects for Moyers' questions include writers Roger Angell, E.L. Doctorow and Tom Wolfe, scientist Isaac Asimov and sociologist William Julius Wilson. If chats with them are as good as Moyers' interviews with Puttnam (who appears again Friday) and Mathews, "World of Ideas" could replace "Jeopardy" as a nightly habit around my house.
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