Do PBS’s conflict of interest rules apply?
Many PBS stations around the country will begin airing a three-part, three-hour documentary tonight (7/12/10) about Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz. According to the New York Times (7/12/10), the unusually lengthy, completely uncritical tribute is partially sponsored by corporations linked to Shultz’s corporate career.
The special, Turmoil and Triumph, was funded by the Stephen Bechtel Fund and Charles Schwab. Shultz was a board member at both companies, and was president of the Bechtel Corporation from 1975 to 1982.
According to reviews, the documentary takes an overwhelmingly positive, even gushing stance. The Times‘ Alessandra Stanley points out, “There is no mention that Mr. Shultz was a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq while still on the board of Bechtel, a construction and engineering firm that won huge contracts that were later criticized by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.”
As the San Francisco Chronicle put it (7/10/10), “Only once in Turmoil‘s three hours will you hear someone disagree with Shultz”–not about his own performance, but about whether Reagan knew about the Iran/Contra arms deals. Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz (7/9/10) noted that the speakers in the film are “an exceptionally enthusiastic lot even by the prevailing standards for testimonials of this sort.”
The political slant of the film is not a surprise. The company that produced it, Free to Choose Media, has had a hand in several conservative-oriented programs that have aired on public television, including 1980’s Free to Choose, a special PBS series celebrating conservative economist Milton Friedman. As Greg Mitchell noted in the Nation (7/12/10), Free to Choose Media “was founded with money from the conservative Bradley Foundation and is part of the Palmer R. Chitester Fund.”
Beyond questions about the tone and length of the special–“Even Ken Burns was able to polish off an entire mini-series about Thomas Jefferson in three hours,” Stanley notes–it’s troubling that PBS is airing a documentary funded by corporations with distinct ties to the subject of the film. In the past, PBS has rejected films for distribution based on these apparent conflicts of interest: The 1997 film Out at Work was refused because it received funding from labor unions and a lesbian group. The 1993 documentary Defending Our Lives addressed domestic violence–but one of the producers was affiliated with a support group for battered women, so PBS wouldn’t air it (Extra!, 1-2/98). Even Lost Eden, a historical drama about a 19th century textile strike, was turned away because of labor funding (Extra!, Summer/90).
Corporate interests, by contrast, have been given more freedom; a series about the oil industry presented by industry-affiliated companies (Extra!, 9-10/93), for example, or the glowing tribute to New York Times pundit James Reston–produced with funding from the New York Times (Extra!, 1-2/98). A 2002 film about corporate globalization was underwritten by the likes of FedEx and British Petroleum (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/02).
What’s PBS‘s excuse this time for airing a program whose subject is so closely tied to the interests of its funders? PBS chief TV programming executive John Wilson told the New York Times (7/12/10): “We evaluate programs on their merits…. PBS has a vivid track record of covering this administration’s key players. It goes without saying this is not our first look at the Reagan White House and not the last.”
So apparently we should wait for the next time PBS airs a three-hour documentary on George Shultz to hear a critical word about the man.
PBS ombud Michael Getler once wrote (10/23/06) that the “internal guidelines are fairly extensive. They state, in part, that ‘PBS expects producers to adhere to the highest professional standards’ including ‘real or perceived conflicts of interest.'”
If those are still the rules, how does PBS justify its decision to give Turmoil and Triumph a national public television platform?
Write to PBS ombud Michael Getler and ask him to investigate the relationship between the subject and funders of Turmoil and Triumph.