PBS's National Desk enlists in the 'gender wars'
Throughout April, the PBS public affairs program National Desk presented a three-part series on “the gender wars” that sought to address “whether the advancement of women in virtually all areas of society can be achieved without a retreat, in some way, on the part of men.”
Asking the question that way is akin to answering it–with a resounding “No.” Nevertheless, National Desk spent three hours attempting to convince PBS viewers that the series presented an honest, in-depth exploration of gender issues facing contemporary America. Impressive spin for a program that was in reality a wholesale attack against women’s efforts to achieve equity in education, sports, the military and society at large.
Journalistic sleight-of-hand is employed to give the impression that the hosts–familiar conservative pundits Fred Barnes (Fox News’ Beltway Boys), Laura Ingraham (MSNBC‘s Watch It!) and Larry Elder (KABC talk radio)–are interested in an open debate about gender politics between feminist groups and conservative critics. Praising this program as one which helps PBS provide “a diversity of viewpoints,” a PBS spokesperson assured FAIR that National Desk‘s “producers give voice to all sides of those issues.”
In reality, progressive representatives were offered only a small fragment of screen time, and were not given the opportunity to directly rebut attacks on their research, motivations and goals. For example, the first hour-long episode, “The War on Boys,” waged war on the American Association of University Women’s acclaimed gender equity studies, yet representatives from the AAUW spoke for only approximately three minutes. Worse, much of this screen time was lifted from a seven-year-old archival interview with AAUW’s former director, talking in generalities.
Throughout the third episode, on the supposed evils of the anti-discrimination law Title IX, Elder condemned the Office of Civil Rights and the National Women’s Law Center as overly litigious, radical feminists dedicated to destroying men’s sports. Elder took pains to say he was giving equal time to the opposition’s arguments, yet representatives of the OCR and the NWLC were rarely allowed to respond to specific accusations against them.
Packaged as a “hard-hitting, reporter-driven series led by journalists,” National Desk‘s hosts clearly took the side of their conservative sources. After a litany of provocative comments from conservatives worried that men are “at risk of becoming ‘tomorrow’s second sex,'” Barnes quickly added: “That wasn’t hyperbole. This isn’t Chicken Little screaming ‘The sky is falling.’ This is real. A time bomb ticking at the foundation of our society.” Ingraham and Elder both used the phrase “common sense” to describe claims that women’s involvement in sports and military service is detrimental to those institutions.
In correspondence with FAIR, a PBS representative insists that “the shows, which deal with complicated issues, do not fit neatly into one ideological framework or another.”
Yet National Desk‘s title for the series (found on its website, but not in PBS promotional materials or in the broadcasts) projects a clear agenda: “You, Me, Government and Social Engineering” is described at www.nationaldesk.com as “A look at how the Social Engineers use Government to manipulate behavior–even to the point of fooling with Mother Nature!”
Underwritten by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the right-wing John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife Foundations, the program showcases partisan pundits who offer opinion in the guise of data, undocumented conservative commentary couched as proof of feminism’s failures. Professors and doctors were interviewed ostensibly for their scholarly expertise, but the evidence they offered was primarily anecdotal (“With enough anecdotes, what you end up with is data,” Elder asserted), and often unrelated to their actual backgrounds and fields of research.
Michael Gurian, a family therapist who is quickly becoming a media darling as a leader of a fledgling “boys’ rights movement,” offered one of the main supporting arguments of “The War on Boys”–that boys brains are neurologically “hard-wired” toward aggression, and that treating boys and girls equally in educational settings hurts boys by “feminizing” them in ways that go against biology. Trouble is, Gurian is not a biologist, or a neurologist. His latest book jacket describes him not as a scientist but as a “therapist, educator and author of seven books.” So what makes him an expert on children’s “brain systems”?
Then there’s Walter Williams, an Olin fellow who received at least $150,000 in Olin grants in 1996, identified only as a professor of economics in the second episode, “Politics & Warriors: Women in the Military.” Williams contended that “mental differences between men and women” cause “ladies” to be “nicer” (and weaker) than men, and therefore less fit for military service. Sure, he’s an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute (funded by Olin, Bradley and Scaife), but what exactly qualifies this economics teacher to give authoritative commentary about “mental differences” between the sexes?
All in the family
Williams is just one of many “experts” featured in the series who are funded, directly or indirectly, by the same foundations bankrolling National Desk. “The War On Boys” relies heavily on the opinions of anti-feminist author Christina Hoff Sommers, paid six figures by Olin, Bradley and Carthage (a Scaife foundation) to publish Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women in 1994.
Since then, she has accepted a fellowship from Bradley, plus at least $76,000 from Olin to continue work in this vein. Currently, Sommers is receiving support from the American Enterprise Institute–itself funded by two Scaife foundations–to complete a book called The War Against Boys. No mention of Sommers’ work on this book is made within the program bearing a strikingly similar name, and she is not identified as connected to National Desk‘s funders.
In the third episode, we learn of the “destructive” impact of Title IX from Leo Kocher, identified by National Desk only as a concerned wrestling coach at the University of Michigan. What we don’t learn is Kocher’s status as one of the country’s most prominent anti-equity advocates: He is both a key leader of the National Coalition for Athletics Equity, an anti-Title IX organization, and the co-chair of the Task Force to Protect Wrestling. Kocher even helped draft wording for House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (failed) anti-Title IX legislation, and has collaborated with another National Desk expert, Kimberly Schuld.
As the director of Play Fair!, an Independent Women’s Forum project, Schuld filed amicus briefs against Title IX. In the series, Schuld insists “statistics” prove girls are not typically interested in sports, making collegiate athletics equity a bad idea. She never mentions the source of these statistics, and the numbers she does give paint an inaccurate picture of female and male participation in sports since Title IX was enacted. The Independent Women’s Forum is funded in part by the Olin, Bradley and Scaife.
Financial ties also link the series’ funders to the National Desk “reporters” responsible for framing the debate. Fred Barnes hosts What’s the Story? for Radio America, funded in part by Olin. Laura Ingraham is a leading member of the Independent Women’s Forum, funded in part by Olin and Scaife. When Larry Elder almost lost his radio show due to charges of racism, $500,000 to keep him on the air was raised by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture–a group partially funded by Olin, Bradley and Scaife.
The financial and ideological interconnections between National Desk‘s funders, hosts and experts make it highly unlikely that “the program’s agenda is not influenced by any funder,” as PBS insists. This is highly problematic in light of how often in the last decade PBS has evoked vague “conflict of interest” concerns to keep programs funded or produced by progressive groups off their line-up. (See Extra!, 7-8/94.)
Nothing is inherently wrong with conservative organizations producing a documentary to express their point of view. But there is something wrong when a PBS series packaged as “journalism” more closely resembles an advertorial for the funders’ spokespeople and book projects–especially when this series also relies (via the CPB) on public tax dollars, and “the support of viewers like you.”
The content of National Desk’s “gender wars” series rests upon a manipulative framing of gender politics. “The War on Boys” opens with a quote from Harvard professor William Pollack, a “boys movement” leader: “If we don’t start changing how we treat our boys, we are going to be heading toward Gender Armageddon.”
Just in case there’s any doubt as to which gender is poised for annihilation, more than 12 minutes of screen time (one-fifth of the first episode) are devoted to a gripe session between a group of unidentified males, ranging in age from adolescents to senior citizens, who complain that they are oppressed by advances in women’s rights. “It’s kind of discouraging to know that a woman might be able to get a job ahead of me because I’m not really being treated equal,” says an urgent teenaged boy. “I might have performed better. I might have done a better job and yet she got picked. She might have been worse than me!”
Rather than balancing this commentary by interviewing girls about their experiences, or talking to boys and men who support the feminist movement, National Desk offers this solution via a representative of the “G.I. Generation”: “Each minority group needs to fight their way out, and that’s what you have to do. Right now guys have become the minority group. It’s time to fight, and that’s it.”
“Politics and Warriors: Women in the Military” is similarly confused as to the nature of sex discrimination, simultaneously promoting two contradictory theories about the impact of women in the armed forces. Retired army colonels posit that rape and harassment of military women occur because women’s mere proximity to men provokes inherently aggressive male tendencies, and will “lead inevitably to additional sexual tensions” (which the program seems to equate with sexual violence). At the same time, frail and nurturing females will rub off on their male colleagues, weakening men’s resolve and ability as cold-blooded soldiers. Which is it: Are women responsible for the mass wimping of the military, or have they–simply by their presence–unleashed military men’s uncontrollable, sexually predatory instincts?
Although gender equity supporters are granted more screen time in the third episode than in the rest of the series, the title says it all: “Title IX and Women in Sports: What’s Wrong With This Picture?” This episode attacks the federal law designed to ensure equity in academic and extracurricular activities as an unintended “quota system.” Experts tap into anti-affirmative action fervor, insisting that the law is forcing schools to throw unenthusiastic women onto lackluster sports teams, preventing qualified, eager male athletes from playing their sport of choice.
At the same time, the episode implies that schools giving scholarships and incentives to female athletes do so at the expense of poor minority boys. Anti-Title IX activist Leo Kocher asks, “Can you imagine the number of minority male athletes who were deprived opportunities?”
All these themes add up to a seriously deficient definition of human rights: one in which there aren’t enough human rights to go around, and if women want their fair share, men naturally have to buckle under. But justice for women and girls has never been about suppressing boys and men. The groups that see gender equity as a “zero-sum game” (the label Fred Barnes gives to feminist goals) are those trying to project an unpopular philosophy onto activists working for equal access for women in education, athletics and other public institutions.
The “experts” and themes from National Desk‘s “gender wars” series have been popping up in media outlets from the New York Times to CNN to NPR: Witness numerous post-Jonesboro and Columbine articles charging that the unnatural feminization of boys by feminists leads to eruptions of aggression and rage. Michael Gurian, Christina Hoff Sommers and a gaggle of conservative organizations are trying to use the media to manufacture the “Myth of the Oppressed Boy” into the next trend story-turned-conventional wisdom. (Compassion for boys is far more palatable to mainstream audiences than outright attacks on girls and women.) But the movement’s claims and statistics are too seldom fact-checked, allowing statements like these from the “gender wars” series to go unchallenged:
“What is so terrible about being a boy that they don’t want to live?”
–Geoffrey Canada, implying that feminist influences over society have led to a higher suicide rate among boys than girls.
According to a poll National Desk displayed in passing, girls attempt suicide approximately 7.7 times as often as boys–suggesting that girls “don’t want to live” as much or more than boys. Boys do succeed in killing themselves more often than girls (partly because they have greater access to guns), but this is not an indicator that boys have a harder time coping than girls.
Fred Barnes calls the American Association of University Women’s gender equity studies “so flawed, the science was so bad, that they should never have been embraced by educators.” Therapist Michael Gurian describes an AAUW study as a survey of boys and girls, and says that the results were necessarily faulty because boys–due to “posturing” and “bravado”–lie when questioned about their feelings.
The only AAUW study mentioned by name in the series is their influential 1992 study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” Not a survey, this was 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. Gurian confuses this report with “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” the AAUW’s 1991 poll on children’s self-esteem. Rather than correcting Gurian’s error, National Desk relies on it to discredit the AAUW on the basis that boys can’t be surveyed accurately–even though the episode ends with William Pollack praising comments boys made about their feelings when he questioned them for his own survey.
Title IX is referred to as part of the Civil Rights Act, and Larry Elder states that it “has never really been applied to the classroom.” Another expert claims Title IX has slashed 20,000 male sports opportunities and created only 5,000 opportunities for women.
Title IX was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 to prevent sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs and activities. Since its enactment, Title IX has been held to prohibit teacher-student sexual harassment, as well as discrimination in admissions, housing, athletics and other areas. As for the data: In 1972, there were 31,000 female and 170,000 male athletes at NCAA institutions. By 1997, there were 128,000 female and 200,000 male athletes. (For a National Women’s Law Center fact sheet debunking Title IX myths, call 202-588-5180.)
“We have to be taught the distinctions between the genders. It’s not prejudice. It’s not negative. It’s not bad for them. It’s just recognizing reality.”
–Diane Medved, explaining why the integration of Little League was “bad for kids.”
A key National Desk premise is that traditional gender roles are innate: Biology nudges boys toward guns and playground brawls, while girls have a genetic predisposition to nurture Barbie dolls. But if traditional gender roles were really innate, as Medved insists, boys and girls would behave consistently regardless of whether we were “taught the distinctions between the genders.” By insisting that society should socialize kids into specifically gendered roles, Medved is inadvertently admitting that children will embrace an array of behavioral options if given the opportunity.
“It’s a political decision to include women in the [military] ranks. It doesn’t have to do that, quite frankly. It’s not as if we can’t find half a million relatively young people…. We can do it without women.”
–Retired Army colonel Robert Maginnis
Sources on National Desk often say “kids” when they mean “boys,” “athletes” or “soldiers” when they mean “men.” But if “people” equals “men,” what are women in this equation?