Reprinted from The Washington Times, June 12, 1995
August 1995 – Pity the poor Piney Woods Opry. Started four years ago to showcase traditional southern bluegrass, folk and gospel music in the small Louisiana town of Abita Springs, the Opry may face an untimely demise if the crucial support of the National Endowment for the Humanities is taken away from it by heartless Republicans. Especially to blame is Bob Livingston, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a man so ruthless with the budget axe that he would put the Opry under even though it is in his own congressional district. That, as least, is what the CBS Evening News, National Public Radio and the Dallas Morning News would have us believe. But the teary-eyed claim does not bear scrutiny. In fact, the story as reported by CBS may be the most fantastically dishonest piece of reporting since NBC blew up a GM pickup truck.
CBS reporter John Blackstone painted a bleak picture for the future of the charming local-music show if Rep. Livingston succeeds in “bringing down the budget ax on federal funding for the arts, particularly the National Endowment for the Arts.” Mr. Blackstone called this ironic, given that “Livingston is calling for cuts just as the Piney Woods Opry, right in his own district, is due to receive its fi rst grant from the NEA, $14,900.”
Now it may seem that if the Opry has been going for several years, but is only now getting an NEA grant, that that was evidence the program could make it without help from the federal government. But not so, according to Opry organizer, May Howell: “We could lose our history,” she told CBS. “When you ask why should the taxpayers want to support this kind of thing, I think that’s why, because it’s about us. It’s about every one of us.”
But the real story in Piney Woods wasn’t about every one, not even every one of the Opry’s supporters – it was largely about Ms. Howell, an activist-lawyer with good press connections. She has appeared recently on the CBS show 60 Minutes in her role as a crusader against police corruption in New Orleans. She is also a friend of NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn, who was in Abita Springs to cover the Opry at the same time CBS had its cameras there. This explains how a small local music program all of a sudden became the focus of a national debate. It also explains why her angle on the story–that without federal funds the Opry would wither and die–was delivered without any opposing view by CBS, and virtually without dissent by NPR.
The propaganda performance by CBS would be entertaining, if it weren’t so appalling. “Without financial help to keep the show running and the recorders turning,” Mr. Blackstone reported “these songs will soon be gone, along with those who play them.” This was what Mr. Blackstone told the nation in his “Eye on America” segment, but he himself knew better.
For several years the Opry has received private funding from the Abita Lumber Company, support that isn’t about to be taken away. “We contributed money to upgrade the production levels,” Jonathan Bachrack told The Washington Times editorial page. The general manager of the family-run business, Mr. Bachrack detailed the thousands of dollars in contributions Abita Lumber had made to the Opry: “We paid for a sound system and a digital link for the live radio feed. We donated materials to upgrade the facilities. We paid to advertise the concerts.” If the Opry needed more help, Abita Lumber would be there – as he told CBS News when they visited the town.
“I was interviewed by CBS for a half-hour. I didn’t say what they wanted to hear,” Mr. Bachrack says. “They wanted me to say that we need the federal government’s money, and that Bob Livingston is a hypocrite.” Instead, says Mr. Bachrack, he “told the people from CBS that we don’t need the federal government to run a local concert.” Now, Mr. Bachrack is no fan of Mr. Livingston, and would have been willing to criticize the chairman, but for different reasons than the ones the CBS script called for. As an unapologetic libertarian, Mr. Bachrack is as skeptical of politicians as he is of the helping hand from Washington.
Strangely, Mr. Bachrack’s comments never made it to air. Nor did CBS point out that the National Endowment for the Arts only granted the Piney Woods Opry money after the November elections – that is, after it became clear Mr. Livingston would be the next head of the Appropriations Committee – raising the question of whether the NEA is disbursing its cash with an eye to embarrassing its political enemies. At least NPR raised this issue, even though its reporter accepted the explanation from the NEA’s Richard Woodruff that, “It’s absurd to allege that any grant is made based on who the Congressman is for the district or his relative position in Congress.”
The Piney Woods Opry is a huge success story, with standing room only in the Abita Town Hall, live radio broadcasts and local businessmen willing to subsidize the program to keep admission fees cheap. Mr. Blackstone and CBS could have reported these plain facts, but instead chose to fashion a piece of propaganda for the NEA.