Nov 12 1999



A national coalition of over 30 feminist, progressive groups and individuals– including Barbara Ehrenreich, Gloria Steinem, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and women and men from the labor, black, Latina and South Asian grassroots communities– has met with PBS to discuss why a recent anti-feminist series was presented by the network as impartial journalism. Of particular concern was that the series aired in the context of a PBS lineup that, overall, under-represents women and people of color. Organizations in the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting are mobilizing their memberships to contact PBS in support of the Coalition’s concerns.

Organized by FAIR’s Women’s Desk, the Coalition emerged in response to a three-part documentary on the “gender wars” that PBS distributed last April as part of its National Desk public affairs series. The show claimed it sought to address whether women’s rights could be advanced without “a retreat” on the part of men, and stated that efforts to achieve gender equity had created “a time bomb ticking at the foundation of our society.” Episode titles included “The War on Boys” and “Title IX & Women in Sports: What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

Largely funded by right-wing foundations (and by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), the series was filled with inaccuracies and misinformation, and presented a relentlessly anti-woman, anti-feminist perspective– yet it was packaged by PBS as impartial journalism.

In a November 9 meeting with PBS, representatives from the Coalition conveyed their concern that the “gender wars” series is only the latest evidence of the larger imbalance in PBS programming, which routinely under-represents women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and a whole range of public interest groups. On behalf of its membership, the Coalition requested that PBS:

Adhere to a single set of programming guidelines, and make them available to the public. (It is not clear how the National Desk series met basic journalistic standards.)

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.”

Air at least one weekly news/public affairs program with a feminist, progressive host.(There is no weekly progressive forum on PBS.)

Outline a clear plan to increase the numbers of women and people of color appearing as sources, guests and hosts on PBS shows.

During the meeting, PBS offered to send the Coalition a copy of its programming guidelines, but would not explain how the National Desk series– which featured experts and hosts whose work is funded by the same groups that bankrolled the series– had met guidelines that, as PBS has stated in the past, preclude even the “perception” of conflict of interest.

PBS did concede, however, that the fact that some National Desk underwriters– namely, the conservative John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife foundations– have funded several other PBS programs was a consideration in whether or not to distribute the “gender wars” series.

Presented with the Coalition’s careful documentation of the series’ factual inaccuracies, PBS promised to launch its own investigation of the matter. But when asked what mechanism was in place to alert viewers when a broadcast like National Desk aired incorrect information, Sandy Heberer, PBS‘s director of news and information programming, said only, “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.” PBS did not agree to revisit the topic of gender equity with a public affairs series comparable to National Desk.

In response to the Coalition’s suggestion that the network balance its lineup with a progressive news or public affairs program, PBS stated that while it was willing to entertain proposals for new programming, “talking heads” shows did not represent a “growth area” for the network. When the Coalition clarified that it was not requesting more such shows, but a more balanced spectrum of shows, PBS did not reply.

“In their zeal to placate the Republican Congress and supplement their budget with money from right wing foundations like Olin, Scaife and Bradley, public television decision-makers haven’t just changed directions– they’ve lost the compass. The ‘gender wars’ series (funded by these same three foundations, and featuring their grantees) was a procession of opinions masquerading as facts, lies presented as truth, and slander disguised as journalism. For PBS management to say that these foundations are not ‘ideological’ demonstrates either ignorance or a profound lack of judgment, or both.”

–Kim Gandy

Executive Vice President

National Organization for Women

“The National Desk series on the so-called ‘gender wars’ was a reactionary attack on the social and political advances women have made over the last century. By presenting it as impartial reporting, PBS has not only called into question public broadcasting’s basic journalistic integrity, but also raised serious doubts about the network’s commitment to serve the public it was mandated to represent. Until its lineup features pro-women’s rights shows and sources throughout, PBS isn’t representing the public at all.”

–Kathy Spillar

National Coordinator

Feminist Majority Foundation

“This year marks PBS‘s 30th anniversary. With consolidation of the media industry proceeding at a frantic pace, we are more in need than ever of public broadcasting that would ‘help us see America whole, in all its diversity,’ as PBS was mandated to do. When women, half the population, are chronically under-represented on public television, something is clearly wrong. It’s wonderful that PBS recently aired a historical film about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but history is hardly enough. As it is, an average PBS viewer wouldn’t know that there are any feminists with a pulse in America!”

–Jennifer L. Pozner

Women’s Desk Director

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting