Nov 12 1999

Does PBS Consider Women Part of the Public?

Biased Series Spurs Meeting With PBS; FAIR Organizes Feminist Coalition for National Campaign

On November 9, 1999, representatives from 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 a variety of women and men from the labor, black, Latina and South Asian grassroots communities–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.

Organized by FAIR’s Women’s Desk, the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting 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, 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 the November 9 meeting, 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 host 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 ideologically driven 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 PBS programs in the past 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 PBS. When the Coalition clarified that it was not requesting more such shows, but a more balanced spectrum of shows, PBS did not reply.

ACTION: It is crucial that PBS hear loud and clear that the public supports the Coalition’s demands for fair representation and diversity, and rejects the idea that shows like the National Desk series can be presented as impartial news. Please call or write PBS today, both at their national offices and at your local station.

As always, it pays to remember that letters are taken more seriously by the media if they maintain a calm, professional tone. Finally, it’s a big help to us if you send a copy of all your correspondence with PBS to us at


PBS’s national offices:

John Wilson, Vice President of Program Scheduling & Editorial Management

Public Broadcasting Service

1320 Braddock Place

Alexandria, VA 22314

PHONE: (703) 739-5000

FAX: (703) 739-0775

Your local PBS station:

(This web page lists all local station addresses, phone numbers and emails.)