PBS would like to be seen as an oasis of civility in an uncivil desert of hot-headed trash talk. One of its inventions is the talk show "To The Contrary," an eight-year-old political roundtable for female pundits. Hosted by Bonnie Erbe, a former legal correspondent for the NBC Radio/Mutual network, it strives to provide "a discussion of issues from a variety of women's perspectives."
But apparently some perspectives are worthy only of scorn. On the weekend of the so-called "Million Mom March," conservative panelist Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity explained why she recently broke a liberal taboo by buying a gun at a gun show: "If you're someone like me, who lives out in a rural area - if someone breaks into my house and wants to murder or rape me or steal all of my property, it'll take half an hour for a policeman to get to me."
Liberal Eleanor Holmes Norton disputed the usefulness of guns. Erbe dismissed the argument altogether: "And if you look at the statistics, I would bet that you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, Linda, than living where you live, and at your age, being raped. Sorry." Before anyone could react, Erbe moved the discussion to a new topic. Can you imagine a man telling Chavez that?
National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru and John J. Miller interviewed Erbe after the show, but she would not back down from her remarks: "Women buying guns for their self protection have gone completely bonkers," she told them. After a 225-word bulletin appeared, Erbe blew up, sending a series of nasty e-mail messages accusing Chavez of having "planted" the piece.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz relayed Erbe's sizzling missives on May 23: "I think your reaction (especially looking up the stats on lightning strikes) goes beyond histrionic," Erbe wrote. (You wonder: how is it histrionic to counter an unsupported crack "I bet if you look at the statistics" with the actual statistics?) For good measure, Erbe threw in a personal insult, calling Chavez an "overgrown Catholic school girl."
Erbe wasn't done, proceeding to dismiss National Review as well: "If you think you zinged us, think again. We don't care. Nobody reads that magazine anyway....I must say I'm shocked at your reaction. I thought you were a much bigger, more mature person than you're showing yourself to be."
But the definitive diss in Erbe's avalanche of e-mail to Chavez was this: "I know and accept your insecurities. And I expect insecure people and especially conservatives to lie and play games. . . . I suggest you get into therapy, otherwise you're going to continue to be miserable and in denial the rest of your life."
All this because Chavez had the audacity to challenge her.
This imbroglio underlines once again that public broadcasting is by definition an enterprise fraught with liberal arrogance. That arrogance is aided by Republican politicians who react to PBS budget requests like fraternity pledges, asking after each whack: "Thank you sir, may I have another?" The most recent poster child for this form of masochism is newly minted Senate candidate Rick Lazio, who assured ABC's Cokie Roberts that "I'm one of the strongest supporters of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
Over the years, Erbe has used her show to advance her own oddball pronunciations. In 1995, when partial-birth abortion became a debating issue, she uniquely declared it wasn't so grotesque: "Isn't, for example, the production of veal, when you describe it in detail, and how people eat meat, when they crunch down on the flesh of living beings, formerly living beings with their teeth. Isn't that pretty gruesome, too?"
Erbe's contempt for the religious right is especially glaring. In 1994, she told her PBS viewers that "The religious right was widely denounced after the '92 Republican convention, which they took over and disgraced the party in many ways." After the 1996 convention, she complained on PBS that "TV viewers saw a well-orchestrated image of a moderated Republican Party, portraying itself as pro-woman, pro-minorities, and pro-tolerance. This is in sharp contrast to the delegates on the floor, sixty percent of whom self-identified as conservative Christians." On Jim Bohannon's radio show at that time, she heckled a conservative caller: "Why don't you recognize some of the hypocrisy on the part of the Republicans?....Well, for starters, a rape victim up on the podium in San Diego when the Republicans oppose abortion."
Chavez responded to Erbe's invective by quitting in disgust. "To the Contrary" may continue despite the exodus of conservative women like Chavez and Kate O'Beirne, who grew tired of being weekly victims of liberal incivility. But nobody at PBS should be allowed to suggest with a straight face that public broadcasting is a hospitable place for conservatives to speak.