Flying High With Boeing

Random Lengths News | January 19, 2006
The host of the longest-running politics show on PBS was all smiles when she concluded a recent program with an upbeat announcement. “Finally tonight, we’d like to welcome Boeing as our newest ‘Washington Week’ underwriter,” Gwen Ifill said. “Thanks to them and to you for joining us.”

Formerly known as “Washington Week in Review,” the half-hour roundtable of journalists assessing the latest news in American politics has long been popular among public-affairs afficionados nationwide. But why the heck is a political show on public television getting a lot of its budget from one of the biggest players in the Washington sweepstakes for Pentagon contracts?

For 38 years, PR material from “Washington Week” says, the program “has delivered the most interesting conversation of the week.” It’s an arguable claim -- many viewers might find themselves becoming drowsy -- but in any event, one of the most politically charged shows in all of public broadcasting is now getting much of its income from Boeing, which wins or loses billions of dollars in contracts depending on how the political winds blow.

Although it airs on what’s called “public” TV, the “Washington Week” show treats its financial arrangements as a strictly private matter. “We do not reveal the budget for the program,” says a spokesperson, Dewey Blanton, and “we do not reveal what our underwriters pay.” At pledge time, any PBS station is eager to proclaim that financial contributions from viewers make them partners in the enterprise of public broadcasting. But Blanton sounded a bit impatient when I pressed him. “There’s nothing special about it,” he said. “We don’t reveal dollars. ... We have just never done it. In the 38 years of ‘Washington Week,’ we’ve never revealed what underwriters pay.”

Aside from PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, right now Boeing is the show’s only underwriter (also known as advertiser). For its money, Boeing gets a 30-second spot at the start of the weekly program and a “billboard” mention at the end. Associating itself with a prestigious PBS show that reaches influential viewers, the aerospace giant surely hopes that some of the program’s civic image will rub off.

“Washington Week” touts the wide viewership of the program -- “currently carried by 90 percent of the 306 PBS stations around the country” while reaching 97 percent of U.S. television households. Another benefit has been in place since 1975, when “the Armed Forces Radio and TV Network was granted permission to carry the program on a regular basis to troops throughout the world.”

Whatever payment Boeing has committed to “Washington Week” is a pittance compared to what the massive firm stands to gain. With annual revenues consistently above $50 billion in this decade, Boeing has plenty of money to throw around with the aim of enhancing its image in political circles. But a political show on public television should not compromise itself this way.

“Our involvement with this program is similar to advertising commitments we make in other programming on CNN, CNBC, local media in target markets, etc.,” Boeing press liaison Dan Beck told me. He added that support for the PBS show “is a way to reach out to informed and interested audiences and extend the brand of this global aerospace company.”

Of course we hear the customary media assurances that those who pay the piper don’t affect the tune. Yet Boeing has good reason to believe that what’s said around the “Washington Week” roundtable will remain harmonious with its favorite melodies coming out of the nation’s capital.

The journalists who regularly appear on “Washington Week” are a mainstream lot, flowing along with the conventional wisdom that prevails inside the Beltway. There’s scarcely a critical word about the tremendous clout of the behemoth that President Dwight Eisenhower warned against -- “the military-industrial complex,” which was much less powerful in Ike’s time than it is today.

From the outset, Boeing’s latest annual report emphasizes that the company is the world’s largest manufacturer of military aircraft, with products such as “electronic and defense systems, missiles, satellites, launch vehicles and advanced information and communication systems.” The company trumpets its capacities for “integrating military platforms, defense systems and the warfighter through network-centric operations.” In short, war is good for Boeing.

Meanwhile, from all indications, Boeing gains from “Washington Week” -- and vice versa. How viewers of public television fit into the deal is another matter.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. For information, go to:

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