Jul 1 2000

PBS’s National Desk

Public Broadcasting Gone Wrong?

Last year, FAIR’s Women’s Desk organized the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting, an ad-hoc coalition of public interest groups whose representatives met with PBS executives in November 1999. The topic on the agenda: the journalistic inaccuracies and conflicts of interest in PBS‘s National Desk, a public affairs series whose three-part documentary on the so-called “gender wars” argued that advances for women and girls are leading to a “gender Armageddon” for boys and men.

Produced by the conservative Whidbey Island Films and funded by the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin, and Sarah Scaife foundations (along with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), the anti-feminist series was marked by factual errors and undisclosed relationships between sources and underwriters–yet it was packaged by PBS as impartial journalism (Extra!, 9-10/99).

Presented with documentation of National Desk‘s journalistic inaccuracies and conflicts between the series’ sources, funders and “reporters,” PBS executives acknowledged that relationships between underwriters and sources “should be disclosed,” and promised to launch an investigation into National Desk.

While FAIR and the other coalition members awaited the results of that investigation, PBS continued to air programs from National Desk. In March, PBS‘s website boasted that “PBS reaffirms its commitment to public affairs programming with two new episodes of National Desk.” But an examination of one of these new episodes, “Education: A Public Right Gone Wrong,” shows that the series continued to feature undisclosed relationships between funders and sources, one-sided advocacy packaged as balanced journalism, and serious factual errors.

Slanted “debate”

The program, hosted by conservative talkshow host Larry Elder, focused on the “school choice” debate–that is, the controversy over whether public money should fund private education via public vouchers, charter schools, scholarships and tax credits.

But viewers hardly heard a debate at all: 38 of the program’s 42 sources supported the premise that the “business” of teaching children should be redirected away from government and “failing” public schools, and toward a privatized industry where students and their families are “customers” and education is a “market.” While four sources, including National Education Association President Bob Chase, defended public education, no source was given air time to explain that education in poor communities might suffer if public money is diverted from already under-funded public schools to subsidize religious or for-profit education ventures. Ironically, National Desk has been defended by PBS as giving voice “to all sides” of the issues it covers, and characterized by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as a series in which “issues are examined from an objective and reflective point of view.”

The undisclosed relationships between the series’ sources and funders indicate a serious breach of journalistic ethics. Over the past decade National Desk‘s funders, the Bradley, Scaife and Olin foundations, have heavily financed litigation, advocacy and lobbying groups, as well as media and publishing efforts to create the appearance of public demand for school privatization. These efforts have been documented by the Wisconsin Education Association Council’s report “Anatomy of a Movement: Wisconsin Vouchers and the Bradley Foundation,” and by People For the American Way (PFAW)’s report “Buying a Movement.”

“Education… Gone Wrong” plays like a “Who’s Who” roster of the school privatization activities Bradley, Scaife and Olin have supported over the years. Of the 38 “school choice” supporters interviewed by National Desk, at least 33 have direct or indirect financial or institutional ties with Bradley, Scaife or Olin. For example:

* Brother Bob Smith, president of Messmer High School, repeatedly extolled the virtues of Catholic education for low-income, minority children. Viewers never learned that Smith actually sits on the board of the Bradley foundation–or that Bradley recently donated millions of dollars to Messmer High.

* Mikel Holt, who likened pro-voucher legislation to a “second emancipation proclamation” for African-Americans, was identified as the editor of the Milwaukee Community Journal, but not as a board member of Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), which receives Bradley funding. Nor were we informed that Holt is the author of a pro-school privatization book co-published by the Bradley and Scaife-funded Social Philosophy and Policy Center.

* Clint Bolick, a national pro-voucher litigator with the Bradley-funded Institute For Justice (IFJ), contended that the public education “monopoly” is “focused not toward serving the needs of kids, but serving the needs of the unions and other special interest groups.” Viewers were not told that Bolick’s institute is funded by Bradley, or that Bradley once reimbursed the state of Wisconsin $350,000 for the legal services of Bolick and Ken Starr, who argued before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in favor of the use of public vouchers for religious schools.

Right-wing infomercials

These sorts of overt financial and institutional connections between National Desk‘s sources and funders make “Education…Gone Wrong” appear to be, as PFAW president Ralph Neas said, “nothing more than an infomercial for vouchers.”

Kathleen Lyons, spokesperson for the National Education Association teachers’ union (NEA), told Extra!, “I have never seen as bad a program on education as this one. After this experience, we are turning down requests to appear in PBS-produced programs, because it’s now clear to me that just because a show is a PBS production does not mean it will be fair or balanced.” Both PFAW and NEA registered official letters of protest, and encouraged their members to contact PBS about the biased program. These groups rightly contend National Desk is not a news program, and should not be categorized as such.

While PBS aired programming about education funded by the same right-wing foundations that have spent millions financing the push for privatization of education, in the past PBS has invoked vague prohibitions against the “perception” of conflict of interest to keep labor- or left-funded programming off PBS air (Extra!, 1-2/98) This double standard was recently reaffirmed by PBS vice president of communications, Tom Epstein, who told the NEA’s Lyons that PBS will “never” air programming funded by labor unions.


Jennifer L. Pozner is head of the Women’s Desk at FAIR.