Apr
03
2002

PBS's "Commanding" Conflict of Interest

Enron & other corporate giants sponsored new globalization series

In the latest example of PBS's inconsistently applied underwriting guidelines, the network is premiering a six-hour series about the global economy which was sponsored by major corporations-- including Enron-- that have a clear interest in the show's content.

Titled Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, the series is based on the eponymous book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. It has already received a rave review from the Wall Street Journal (3/28/02) under the headline "PBS Likes Capitalism More Than the Commercial Networks Do," in which it hailed the series as a "paean to private enterprise."

Corporate funders of Commanding Heights include the Electronic Data Systems Corporation (which bills itself as "the leading global information technology services company"), BP (formerly British Petroleum, one of the world's largest oil companies) and FedEx-- all firms with a major stake in the debate over the future of the global economy.

Enron no longer appears on lists of the show's funders, but the Boston Globe (1/23/02) has reported that Enron was one of the series' original underwriters, providing backing that might have been "in the six figures." Since Enron's scandalous collapse, PBS has downplayed the Enron link, calling it "a distraction." In January, after more than two years of work on the series and just three months before its debut, Yergin told the Globe that "preliminary discussions" had been undertaken to find a replacement underwriter.

This isn't the first time that PBS has distributed a show with a funding-related conflict of interest. Nor is it the first time that Yergin has been involved. Over the years, FAIR has found that PBS scrutinizes the underwriters of certain documentaries with more vigilance than it does others. Shows produced or funded by "interest groups" like unions and public interest activists have been rejected by PBS as compromised by these connections, while programs funded by corporate or conservative interests are A-OK. Here are a few examples of that trend:

DISTRIBUTED BY PBS:

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, a 1993 series funded by PaineWebber, a company with significant oil interests. The series’ main analyst was Daniel Yergin, a consultant to major oil companies. Almost every expert featured was a defender of the oil industry.

Living Against the Odds, a 1991 special on risk assessment that asserted, "We have to stop pointing the finger at industry for every environmental hazard." Funded by Chevron, a petrochemical company often criticized for environmental pollution.

James Reston: The Man Millions Read, a flattering documentary about the New York Times' most famous pundit. The film was funded by and produced "in association with" the New York Times. The director and producer, Susan Dryfoos, is part of the Sulzberger family that owns the paper, and is the daughter of a former Times publisher.

REJECTED BY PBS:

Out At Work, a 1997 film about workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians. Why? It was partially funded by unions and a lesbian group. PBS acknowledged that the underwriters had clearly not controlled the program's content, and that it was "compelling television responsibly done," but still refused to distribute it.

Defending Our Lives, a 1993 Academy Award-winning documentary about domestic violence. Why? 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."

The Money Lenders, a 1993 film about the World Bank. Why? PBS was concerned that "even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected."

According to the Commanding Heights trailer-- which, though it doesn't disclose the show's underwriters, does feature footage of FedEx airplanes-- the show aims to tell "the story of the battle between the power of governments and the power of the marketplace over which will control the commanding heights of the world's economies."

"It's unfortunate that public television is presenting viewers with a report on the struggle over globalization that's been bankrolled by some of the key players from one side of the debate," said FAIR’s Rachel Coen.

For some of FAIR's past work on PBS, see our archives.