News & Politics

With Corporate Influence Shaping the PBS Agenda, Two New Organizations Push for Change

The Public Broadcasting Service has long been attacked for failing to give voice to non-elites and caving in to corporate interests. Now, spurred on by PBS' recent anti-feminist "gender wars" documentary series, a new coalition of women, labor, environmental and media groups is finally demanding real change from public television. Will their pressure force PBS to live up to its stated goal of "providing a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard?"
The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has never lacked for criticism. It was created in 1967 with the ambitious mandate to "provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate" and broadcast programs that "help us see America whole, in all its diversity." But PBS has been accused, year in and year out, of failing to captivate a wide enough audience, and of kowtowing to the cultural tastes of elites, of producing safe, dull and unoriginal programming.By its own account, PBS today is on the upswing. Four years after congressional leaders accused PBS of "exhibiting a liberal bias" and threatened to "zero out" public television, the nonprofit corporation is in good stead with its federal funders. Congress has approved a $50 million annual increase for PBS (up to $300 million), something that hasn't been done since 1995. Moreover, according to its 1998 annual report, PBS has repositioned itself as a "modern media enterprise," financially secure with a high-tech educational outreach program and a sophisticated Web site.Yet, as many media watchdogs, labor, environmental and women's organizations see it, the real story behind PBS' financial health has less to with federal funding, media savvy and Web-driven public support than with its increased dependence on corporations. Organizations such as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and the Media Education Foundation say PBS has caved to corporate interests, letting multinational corporations like Mobil and General Motors -- as well as conservative foundations like John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife -- underwrite programs that are a far cry from the diversity of opinion that was PBS' original mandate. For these media watchdogs, the cost of survival for PBS has meant the expansion of five-second underwriting acknowledgments into 30-second commercials, a dwindling number of public affairs programs critical of industry and government, and an increase in business news shows that cater to the few Americans actively involved in the buying and trading of stock."Public broadcasting routinely covers our society from the top down (government and corporate officers and Wall Street investors), but almost never from the bottom up (workers, consumers and those concerned with the environment)," said Janine Jackson, program director of the New York-based Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Jackson and her organization, FAIR, have become active in two new coalitions that are demanding public broadcasting reform -- the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting and the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB).The first, the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting, has brought together 30 feminist, progressive groups and individuals that include: Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and labor, black and Latino grassroots community organizations. The Coalition is protesting what they see as the epitome of PBS' move to the right: a recent anti-feminist "gender wars" documentary series funded largely by conservative foundations (as well as by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a congressionally funded nonprofit organization), filled with inaccuracies and peopled by experts and hosts with ties to the same organizations that paid for it.The three-part documentary, which aired in April as part of PBS' "National Desk" public affairs series, featured episode titles such as "The War on Boys" and "Title IX & Women in Sports: What's Wrong With This Picture?" and stated that efforts to achieve gender equity had created "a time bomb ticking at the foundation of society." In other words, that women's rights could be advanced only by a "retreat" on the part of men.In one episode, "Politics & Warriors: Women in the Military," Walter Williams, an economist, contended that "mental differences between men and women" cause "ladies" to be "nicer" than men and therefore less fit for military service. Yet Williams is neither a biologist nor a sociologist. He is a fellow at the Olin Foundation, which funded the "National Desk" series, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, which is supported by Olin, as well as the Bradley and Scaife foundations, the series' other source of nonprofit support.Another expert who appeared in the series, Kimberly Schuld, is associated with the conservative Independent Women's Forum, which again is funded by Olin, Bradley and Scaife. Schuld insisted that statistics prove girls are not typically interested in sports, although she never mentioned the source of the statistics, which seem odd in a year that the U.S. won the Women's World Cup.Beyond the financial and ideological connections between the series and its experts, the Feminist Coalition has found it galling that the episode "Title IX & Women in Sports" contained inaccuracies, such as the misidentification of Title IX as part of the Civil Rights Act (it was passed as part of the Education Amendment of 1972 to prevent sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs) and the claim that Title IX has not been applied to the classroom."This National Desk series was riddled with inaccuracies about gender equality research and programs, propagated by people who have been discredited repeatedly by scholars and others over the years," said David Sadker of American University's School of Education and a Feminist Coalition supporter. "In airing these distortions and inaccuracies, PBS has compromised the results of 30 years of exhausting studies undertaken by researchers such as myself on behalf of students."On November 9, Feminist Coalition members met with PBS officials to question why PBS aired a series that presents an "anti-woman, anti-feminist perspective packaged by PBS as impartial journalism" and to urge them, among other things, to create a single set of programming guidelines in order to maintain its journalistic integrity. PBS officials, falling back on their mandate language, countered that the series was designed to spur debate."We present different programs with different points of view all the time," Tom Epstein, PBS vice president of communications, told the Boston Globe. "We do not take orders from ideological special interests on what to air," he continued, suggesting that the grantees and supporters of the Olin, Bradley and Scaife foundations do not represent ideological special interests, but members of the Feminist Coalition do."PBS is very interested in pitching this as a left versus right battle," said Jennifer Pozner, Women's Desk director of FAIR. "But this isn't about the left versus the right. This is about journalistic integrity. This is about putting the public back on public TV. This is about creating a mechanism for journalistic guidelines. How could these funding elements be allowed to sway programming so strongly?"Pozner said that PBS' rightward bias is illustrated by its selection of documentary programs. Among PBS' recently rejected shows was "Defending Our Lives," an Academy Award-winning documentary about domestic violence that was not aired because one of the producers was the leader of a battered women's support group and PBS felt that gave her a "direct vested interest in the subject matter of the program." Also rejected was "The Money Lenders," a film about the World Bank, which PBS did not show because it was concerned that "even though the documentary may be objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected."Coming to the aid of the Feminist Coalition's critique of PBS is a new nonprofit, the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), which was formed last month in Washington, D.C. Funded by the Soros and Florence and John Schuman foundations and backed by journalistic heavies like Bill Moyers and Hendrick Smith, CIPB is out to empower community groups' hold on their local public television programming and -- more ambitiously -- to abolish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, replacing it with a permanent Public Broadcasting Trust, independent of corporate and government influence."Production and programming on PBS are driven by where the funding is coming from instead of by concept or mission," said Jarold Starr, CIPB's executive director. "The Public Broadcasting Trust would effectively ban corporate underwriting and allow PBS to return to its mission to serve as a town hall of the air."Starr believes an intolerable situation has developed where there are nightly or weekly shows available for those interested in business and Wall Street investing, but no regular program for those whose concern is human rights, workplace issues, consumer affairs, or environmental protection. Like most in the PBS reform movement, he insists that the sole public, non-commercial venue for television is being overwhelmed by commercial forces and that PBS must be saved from becoming a handmaiden to big business and the ideological platforms of a few wealthy foundations.Starr says there are several forces of change these days that could make the PBS trust fund a reality. He points out that in 1998, House Telecommunications Subcommittee leaders Billy Tauzin and Edward Markey designed a bill (which was later withdrawn) for a permanent PBS trust fund and that the Gore Commission on the social responsibilities of digital broadcasters strongly recommends that Congress create such a trust. A December 1998 poll by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates also found that 79 percent of the American public favors a proposal to require commercial broadcasters to pay 5 percent of their revenues to support public broadcasting programming, something that would give the trust, which CIPB envisions should have at least $1 billion annually, the funds it needs to remain independent.Starr and CIPB board directors, who include Alvin Perlmutter, the Emmy award-winning documentary producer, Nolan Bowie of Harvard University, and Janine Jackson of FAIR, also make it clear that PBS officials may be at the end of their rope regarding funding conflicts. In CIPB's press release former PBS President Bruce Christensen is quoted as warning that unless the funding problems get solved, public broadcasting "will become a commercial medium in the next century."As part of its campaign, CIPB plans to organize local chapters, which will seek to influence the programming of their public broadcasting stations. "We'll be going after educational organizations and environmental groups, unions, civil rights organizations, women's groups, and arts and cultural organizations -- everyone who has a common interest in seeing PBS as a tool for civic life," said Starr, who added that part of the problem of influencing PBS at a grassroots level is that people "don't know how the system works." CIPB is in the process of developing a training manual, workshops, an interactive Web site and instructional videos.At the end of the day, Starr and fellow reformers insist PBS must ask itself "who public television is for." Although as PBS' Tom Epstein put it, "We present different programs with different views all the time," Feminist Coalition members and CIPB supporters believe that "different" has become a euphemism for "what the market will allow.""The increasing commercialization of the system suggests that the public-as-citizens approach is taking a backseat to the public-as-market model at the 'new PBS,'" argued William Hoynes, a professor of sociology at Vassar College who works with FAIR and is on CIPB's advisory board. "Public television can be a valuable democratic resource if its leadership takes seriously its founding mission to broadcast programs that include fresh perspectives, expand dialogue, welcome controversy and serve all segments of the public."The question is, can PBS do all this and remain dependent on corporate and foundation support?For more information on how to join the reform PBS movement, please contact Citizens for Independent Broadcasting: 1029 Vermont Ave., NW, Suite 800, Washington DC 20005; Tel: 202-628-6880. CIPB's Web site will be up in January at www.freepubcasting.org.Also, for more information on the Feminist Coalition and its fight to increase the views and representation of women, people of color, gays and lesbians and other public-interest groups on PBS, go to www.fair.org/feminist-coalition.html.
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