Jul 20 2010

PBS Ombud Agrees With FAIR on Shultz Tribute

Says funding gives series a 'credibility problem'

In response to hundreds of letters from FAIR activists, PBS ombud Michael Getler (7/16/10) agreed with FAIR’s criticism (Action Alert, 7/12/10) of the 3-hour PBS documentary Turmoil and Triumph, a tribute to former Reagan-era Secretary of State George Shultz funded in part by institutions and individuals with close ties to Shultz.

Getler found Turmoil to be “over-the-top, in my view, with praise, but with relatively little critical appraisal of some of the more controversial actions of Shultz’s tenure.” He wrote:

This series, for me, as a viewer and an ombudsman, created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest; a portrait so glowing that it overwhelms whatever modestly critical elements are included, that does not easily fit the designation one usually associates with a documentary, and that is indeed funded in part by associates of the subject. It doesn’t mean that funders exerted any editorial influence, but it left me feeling they didn’t have to.

Getler concluded that he was left with

a sense that it had a credibility problem, one that could have been fixed in the telling and in a search for other sponsors. I felt it did not meet PBS‘s own “perception test” ground rules when one combined the dominant tone of sainthood, the length, the sense that a critical eye was missing, the omissions about Iraq and those sponsorships that were immediately eye-catching for anyone familiar with this period.

PBS disagreed with FAIR and Getler. The official response to Getler stated that the show “fully meets our standards for editorial integrity,” citing the fact that the show had 13 funders, none of whom “accounted for more than 25 percent of the budget.” That one of these funders was the Bechtel family foundation was not a problem, since the “subject matter of the program was Shultz’s role as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, not his role in the corporation.” PBS also pointed to Bechtel’s support for “a wide range of projects and institutions,” presumably as evidence that its funding of a hagiography of its affiliated corporation’s former president and current board member was not suspect.

The problems with Turmoil and Triumph‘s funding, however, go beyond Bechtel and Schwab, the two corporate-affiliated major funders noted in FAIR’s Action Alert. Seven of the 13 funders have close ties to the right-wing Hoover Institution–where Shultz is a distinguished fellow–either as major donors or members of the board of overseers; five are listed as “major funders” of the documentary (the Annenberg Foundation, Stephen Bechtel Jr. Foundation, Charles Johnson, Thomas Stephenson and Cynthia Gunn Fry).

Major funder Donald Fisher was a fellow board member with Shultz at Charles Schwab. Major funder Peter G. Peterson became good friends with Shultz at the University of Chicago and later became his colleague in the Nixon administration (Big Think, 11/7/07). Another funder, John C. Whitehead, served as Shultz’s second-in-command at the State Department.

The documentary’s backers don’t just have institutional and professional ties to Shultz, but personal connections as well. Two funders–Charles Johnson and Stephen Bechtel–reportedly hang out with Shultz at Bohemian Grove, the elite summer retreat in Northern California, where all three belong to the high-powered Mandalay camp (Sonoma County Free Press, 8/22/08). Shultz was described as a “close friend” of Richard Blum–Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband–in a press release (4/19/06) announcing the launch of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, for which Shultz serves as an honorary trustee; the San Francisco Chronicle (5/13/07) named Blum and Feinstein as part of a small circle of “friends and loved ones” of Shultz’s wife Charlotte. Charlotte Shultz serves on the board of trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with donors Doris Fisher and Gretchen Leach–a board chaired by Charles Schwab.

David deVries, the producer of the series, also had a response to what he called the “the sneering, scurrilous accusations of prejudice and partiality about the shows made by Greg Mitchell in his Nation blog of July 12 and the FAIR.org blog of the same date.” DeVries wrote:

Allow me to say that throughout the almost three years it took me to create the series, I was completely unaware of who the funders were…. The overall positive tone of my portrait of George Shultz was arrived at through my own research and an extensive interview process. It is positive because I legitimately came to believe Shultz has been a dedicated public servant and a great secretary of State.

It is not necessary for the producer to be aware of the funders for the funders to have an impact on the program; contributors to Free to Choose Media would certainly expect that they were funding a conservative project, because that’s what that production company consistently does. Whether it does so by telling the producers it hires what to say, or by hiring people who do not need to be told, is not particularly important.

Read Getler’s full response, as well as PBS‘s response, here:


FAIR thanks Getler for his response. Thanks also to all the FAIR activists who wrote to Getler.