FAIR's Response to PBS's Findings on National Desk

Below is the letter FAIR sent to PBS in reply to its findings on the National Desk "gender wars" series.

Sandra Heberer

Director, News and Information Programming

Tom Epstein

Vice President, Communications

Public Broadcasting Service

1320 Braddock Place

Alexandria, VA 22314-1698

June 23, 2000

Dear Ms. Heberer and Mr. Epstein:

Thank you for your letter explaining the results of your investigation into the April 1999 National Desk series on the "gender wars." FAIR is glad to know that PBS "deeply respects" the expertise and dedication of the representatives you met from the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting’s member organizations.

However, we must note with disappointment that PBS’s findings not only distort several of the Coalition’s arguments, but sidestep certain key questions entirely. For example, it is still unclear whether PBS recognizes that the "gender wars" series approached its subject matter from a conservative perspective, and if so, why the shows were promoted as balanced, impartial journalism. And while FAIR applauds the spirit of PBS’s initiative to "further ensure" that underwriters cannot influence program content, your announcement of this "procedural change" raises more questions than it answers. Lastly, your report dismisses some of the Coalition’s concerns by pointing out PBS’s "mandate to present balance over time," leaving FAIR to wonder whether you read the materials we presented to you, which stressed that our critique of National Desk should be understood as part of a larger critique of PBS’s failure to fulfill that very mandate—the balancing of its programming over time.

Methodological Concerns

PBS’s cooperation with the series’ producers, Whidbey Island Films, on an investigation of the concerns raised by the Coalition was a welcome and positive first step. But FAIR is troubled by your reliance on Whidbey to evaluate their own work for errors and conflicts of interest. The producers have a vested interest in upholding National Desk’s credibility; PBS’s investigation should have encompassed more than their response.

Whidbey representatives have been quoted in the press dismissing the Coalition’s concerns as an attack on conservative programming per se—perhaps PBS’s reliance on their analyses explains your surprising declaration that "most of the concerns" raised during our November meeting were "rooted in the opposition to the points of view presented in the respective programs."

Neither FAIR nor the Coalition has ever suggested that conservative viewpoints should be excluded from PBS. On the contrary, as both FAIR and the Coalition have explicitly and repeatedly stated, we advocate for PBS to fulfill its original mandate to "help us see America whole, in all its diversity." It is disappointing that your report does not acknowledge this concern, since, as noted above, it was central to the arguments the Coalition presented to PBS.

Distortions of the Coalition’s Arguments

The Coalition documented serious factual errors in the National Desk "gender wars" series, only some of which PBS responds to in its findings. FAIR was surprised to note that even in the case of those accuracy concerns PBS did address, the substance of the Coalition’s original questions was often distorted or dismissed. A few representative examples follow:

  • PBS acknowledges that Fred Barnes, host of "The War on Boys," confused the dates of an American Association of University Women (AAUW) report and an AAUW survey, as we pointed out. You call this mistake "regrettable," but excuse it as not "substantively misleading." But the Coalition’s objection was not that Barnes merely got a date wrong. The program misrepresented the substance of the AAUW’s 1992 study, "How Schools Shortchange Girls" (a peer-reviewed report based on more than 1,300 research studies from sources such as the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, documenting the inequitable treatment girls receive in education), confusing this report with "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," the AAUW’s 1991 poll on children’s self-esteem. Though these reports utilized different methodologies and produced different results, both Barnes and program sources refer to them interchangeably in order to discredit AAUW research as (in Barnes’ words) "so flawed, the science was so bad, that they should never have been embraced by educators." This contradicts your claim that "the substance of the report was presented accurately."
  • Responding to our charge that "Title IX and Women in Sports: What’s Wrong With This Picture?" incorrectly claimed that Title IX has not been applied to the classroom, you write: "The program did not make this claim, but did make the point that enforcement based on the ‘three-prong’ test had only been applied to athletics." We are left to wonder if indeed you watched the episode in question. If you consult the program you will find that host Larry Elder clearly states, incorrectly, "Well, the first thing to understand is that Title IX has never really been applied to the classroom. It never really crept down to that level."
  • PBS defends the program’s portrayal of girls as uninterested in athletics by saying this stereotype was offered by sources merely in discussions of their own experiences. But sources like the Independent Women’s Forum’s Kim Schuld spoke outside their experiences and were allowed to present their opinions as facts. Schuld claimed "statistics" prove girls are not typically interested in sports, though she never mentions the source of these statistics. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) provided documentation illustrating girls’ increased interest and participation in athletics and disproving the notion, as offered by the anti-Title IX group National Coalition for Athletics Equity (NCAE), that women’s athletic gains have come at the expense of men’s sports. Yet you dismissed this documentation because "the producers question the source of the statistics presented by NWLC, and point to NCAA [sic] figures quoted by Kocher." This circular argument (NWLC discredits statistics offered by Kocher and National Desk’s producers, you seek a response from National Desk’s producers, who refer you to Kocher’s NCAE statistics) confirms the need to go beyond the producers when seeking answers to such questions.

At times, PBS’s report defends the inclusion of questionable information as acceptable because it came in the form of a host’s opinion delivered to the camera; at other times you consider information acceptable because it is offered not by a host but by an interviewee. But factual inaccuracy is problematic no matter who relays it—the program is still in error whether misinformation was provided by a source or a reporter.

During our November 1999 meeting the Coalition asked what mechanism was in place at PBS to inform viewers that they had seen misinformation in National Desk. At that time, Ms. Heberer responded, "We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it." We seem to have arrived. FAIR is interested to know how PBS plans to cross it—what measures will be taken to inform viewers of the program’s errors?

Balanced or Partisan?

At the heart of the Coalition’s concerns about National Desk lies a serious charge that went unacknowledged in your letter and, seemingly, in your investigation—that National Desk’s series on gender issues was not balanced investigative journalism, and should not have been presented as such by the producers, by PBS promotional material (which described the programs as "hard-hitting" and "reporter-driven"), or by PBS Viewer Services (which, in correspondence with FAIR, insisted that National Desk producers give voice to "all sides" of the issues they explore, and stated "the shows, which deal with complicated issues, do not fit neatly into one ideological framework or another.")

Had National Desk presented the "gender wars" series as a commentary by conservatives about their perceptions of feminism’s impact on society—and had the producers disclosed the connections between those commentators and the series’ conservative underwriters—many of the Coalition’s concerns would not have arisen. It is important to reiterate that FAIR does not object to PBS airing antifeminist viewpoints (although we do feel they further skew an already unbalanced public affairs line-up that underrepresents women and feminists). What does disturb us is the false framing of a politically biased and factually inaccurate series as impartial journalism.

Unanswered Questions about Funding

According to your report, PBS has announced a formal change in its procedures "to further ensure" that funders are prevented from influencing program content. You say this "procedural change" gives producers an "affirmative obligation to inform" PBS of connections between underwriters and program participants. PBS would then either disclose such relationships, or, in cases of clear conflict of interest, decline to air the show in question.

Where National Desk is concerned, you say your findings did not substantiate the Coalition's charges of conflict of interest, and that "‘disclosure’ of tangential connections in this instance may be more misleading and confusing than enlightening." What’s truly confusing, however, is PBS's definition of "conflict of interest." FAIR appreciates your willingness to revise procedures in response to criticisms. But if the rather direct financial relationships which our research revealed between National Desk funders and sources don’t qualify as conflicts of interest, what does?

FAIR requests a clearer delineation of what kind of connection PBS would consider sufficiently direct to require the network to decline to distribute a program. We would also be interested to learn more details about how the "procedural shift" will be implemented, and whether it will be reflected in a revised version of PBS’s program guidelines.

When you refer to the limited number of cases in which a "conflict could be adequately ameliorated by providing critical information about it to viewers—in the body of the program or in the production credits," what type of critical information would PBS provide, and in what form? Presumably PBS would disclose information about any conflicts in the body of the program in question, or directly prior to or following said program. We assume you agree it would be insufficient to disclose conflicts of interest solely on program websites (which you name as potential venues for "more detailed background information"), where they would be seen only by viewers seeking background information. FAIR would appreciate it if PBS would keep us informed as to these promising policies as they evolve.

In light of continuing problems with National Desk that FAIR has documented since the November meeting, we have questions about how PBS’s new funding disclosure procedures are being implemented. Did Whidbey Island Films fulfill their affirmative obligation to disclose underwriter/source connections in National Desk’s 2000 programming roster?

It is hard to imagine that they did, considering that in just one of those episodes, "Education—A Public Right Gone Wrong," FAIR documented undisclosed connections between a majority of the program’s 42 interviewees and the foundation underwriters. Of the 38 "school choice" supporters interviewed by National Desk, at least 33 have direct or indirect financial or institutional ties with the Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife or John M. Olin foundations, or with organizations or individuals they have supported. One of these interviewees, Brother Bob Smith, sits on Bradley’s board. We’d be happy to provide you a break down of these connections.

It is hard to reconcile PBS’s newly adopted procedural shift to guard against conflicts with your statement that, "knowing what we know now, we cannot say that we would have handled these National Desk episodes any differently."

Your reasoning—that "the underwriters had no editorial input or control," that "the three foundation underwriters together provided less than 25% of the total budget of the series," and that "the foundation underwriters are not single interest entities; they each support a wide variety of projects"—contradicts the rationales presented for previous program decisions to deny PBS air time to left- or union-funded programs. Further, knowing what we know about the "gender wars" programs and subsequent National Desk episodes, this reasoning seems inappropriate in this case.

The first claim, about funders not having direct editorial input or control, is beside the point for a network whose guidelines preclude even the perception of conflict of interest. When defending your refusal to air Out At Work, the 1997 film about workplace discrimination funded in part by labor unions and a lesbian rights group, you stated that PBS couldn’t distribute the film because PBS underwriting guidelines "prohibit funding that might lead to an assumption that individual underwriters might have exercised editorial control over program content—even if, as is clear in this case, those underwriters did not." This seems to point to a different set of rules than those applied in the case of National Desk.

Secondly, the fact that right-wing foundations only provided 25% of the series’ budget does not ameliorate conflict of interest. The issue at hand is that these foundations were allowed to fund a series that serves to promote their self-interests—not how much funding they provided. But if, as you say, the amount of funding is indeed the question, and a quarter of the budget is not enough to disqualify a series from airing, why then did you see a "perception problem" with contributions for Out At Work from groups like the United Auto Workers, the Service Employees International Union and Astrea, the National Lesbian Action Foundation—when none of these contributions was more than $5,000, and most were around $1,000?

The third claim seems, frankly, irrelevant. How does being "broadly focused" relate to whether or not an organization has a conflict of interest with the content of a program it funds? It is unclear why a multi-issue organization like Bradley, Olin or Scaife should be exempt from conflict concerns when they finance programming that publicizes single-issue work they support. In fact, we specifically stated in our meeting with you that these foundations’ overt and highly publicized efforts to shift media debate and public opinion to the political right on issues ranging from gender equity and Title IX to biological determinism make them more, not less, questionable as underwriters for National Desk.

When a Coalition member asked why PBS deemed Astrea’s funding of Out At Work problematic while accepting Olin, Bradley and Scaife’s funding of National Desk’s "gender wars" series, Ms. Heberer responded that PBS views Astrea as an "ideological" group, which makes them unacceptable as funders. FAIR would appreciate clarification of how PBS defines "ideological" in such as way that Olin, Bradley and Scaife do not qualify as such.

As FAIR has stated in previous correspondence with PBS, what these various programming decisions make clear is that some times, for some organizations, PBS allows questions of budget percentages, editorial control, etc. to ameliorate concerns of conflicts of interest. At other times, for other organizations, these questions are not even asked. In other words, PBS has a shifting standard for the programs it chooses to distribute or reject. A shifting standard is a double standard—or no standard at all.

The Coalition presented PBS with detailed documentation of connections between National Desk funders and sources that far exceeded the "tangential." Our research is on the record, and need not be recounted here. FAIR stands by our questions about how National Desk passed muster in relation to guidelines that PBS has said preclude even the "perception" of a conflict of interest—and how PBS could say in good conscience that, knowing what you know now, you would not have handled the "gender wars" series any differently.

Lack of Balance Over Time

You open your letter by referring to PBS’s "mandate to present balance over time (not within individual programs)" and state that National Desk is meant to help PBS present "the widest possible diversity of views," by featuring "opinions not found elsewhere in the body of programming PBS has presented over the years on gender issues." This seems to be an indirect admission (the first thus far) that National Desk is in fact a ideologically conservative series, intended to deliver the conservative point of view on public affairs issues.

Again, Coalition members never denied the right of conservatives to have programming reflecting their views. Instead, they asked why PBS presented a series so clearly partisan in tone and content as impartial journalism, reflective of "all sides" of the issues. (This question is compounded by the continued packaging of additional episodes of National Desk as balanced journalism.) FAIR is still waiting for an answer to that question.

In any case, FAIR agrees that the balance of public television's lineup as a whole is a central issue. During the November meeting, the Coalition voiced concern over the across-the-board gender imbalance in PBS’s news and public affairs programming, and provided documentation of it.

As for PBS’ programming on women’s history, much of it has come in the form of documentaries, which are certainly commendable and valuable. But these programs are occasional, and address issues from the past. They can in no way be compared to regular public affairs programming addressing current public policy issues and debates.

In keeping with PBS’ "mandate to present balance over time," Coalition members suggested that PBS support a series on gender equity hosted and produced by feminists, equivalent in length and topical urgency to National Desk’s series on the "gender wars." Also in keeping with the mandate for balance, it was suggested that PBS air at least one weekly news/public affairs program with a feminist, progressive host, and that you outline a clear plan to increase the numbers of women and people of color appearing as sources, guests and hosts on PBS programs. FAIR is still waiting to hear if you have rejected or accepted these suggestions.


Jennifer L. Pozner

Women’s Desk Director

Read PBS's original letter, and learn more about the Coalition's critique of National Desk.