Sep 1 1999

Public Television?

A FAIR Fact Sheet on PBS Programming

For over a decade, conservatives in Congress have threatened to cut or eliminate funding for public broadcasting because of its supposed “liberal bias.” Since then, corporate funding of public television has increased markedly. These pressures have inspired a rightward shift in public television’s programming– FAIR studies have consistently found that the sources, hosts and guests on public television news and public affairs shows overwhelmingly represent corporate and conservative interests, while the voices of women, people of color, labor, environmentalists, consumer advocates, the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, and other public interest constituencies are marginalized.

Evidence of this rightward bias is dramatically illustrated by PBS‘s selection of documentary programs. This sampling of PBS offerings suggests a double standard in the programming guidelines:


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.”

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.

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.”


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.

It seems that PBS does not scrutinize the underwriters of all documentaries with the same vigilance. Shows produced or funded by “interest groups” like unions and public interest activists have been rejected by PBS as biased, while programs funded by corporate or conservative interests are A-OK. For example, when asked whether the rejection of Out at Work meant PBS would never distribute a union-funded documentary on workplace issues, a PBS representative replied, “I think that’s probably true.”

What’s more, FAIR studies have shown that biases towards corporate and conservative interests are even more pronounced in public television’s weekly news and public affairs programming (including Wall Street programs underwritten by Wall Street firms). This is especially significant because news and public affairs programs can– and are meant to–impact debates over public policy.

A new study by Vassar professor William Hoynes (“The Cost of Survival: Political Discourse and the ‘New PBS‘”) presents some instructive findings on public television’s public affairs programming:

More than one-third of all on-camera sources (36.3%) during the two weeks studied were representatives of corporate America or Wall Street. By contrast, citizen activists accounted for just 4.5 percent of sources.

News sources on public affairs programs are largely male: Only 21.5 percent of sources in the study sample were women. When sources are female, they generally speak on issues such as health, family, religion and sexuality, making them a majority (56.5 percent) of sources on social issues. Even that exposure is largely due to one token women’s program, the debate show To the Contrary.

Is this the line-up of a broadcast system established to “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard,” with programs that “help us see America whole, in all its diversity?”

For further information about the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting’s national campaign, please read this press release.

See also FAIR’s extensive background information on PBS:

A list of the members of the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting

Questions and answers about PBS and the National Desk series on the “gender wars”

Rally ‘Round the Boys: PBS‘s National Desk enlists in the “gender wars” (Extra!, 9-10/99)

FAIR’s archive of past research on PBS.