May 5 2000

PBS’s Findings on National Desk

Below is the letter PBS sent to FAIR detailing the findings of its internal investigation into the National Desk “gender wars” series, undertaken in response to the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting.

May 5, 2000

Ms. Jennifer L. Pozner

Women’s Desk Director


130 West 25th Street

New York, NY 10001

Dear Ms. Pozner:

We have examined the three NATIONAL DESK programs on gender issues in light of the information you and the coalition you represent have provided us. Last November, we were pleased to meet the individuals who comprise the coalition. We are grateful for their analyses, and deeply respect their expertise and dedication.

It is clear that most of the concerns are rooted in the opposition to the points of view presented in the respective programs. We understand that, and would expect nothing less from the committed individuals with whom we met. The coalition is comprised of authoritative people who are articulate and powerful proponents of worthy goals, goals paramount in the work they do every day. PBS has a broader mandate to present balance over time (not within individual programs) on the important issues of our time and to seek the widest possible diversity of views on those issues. The NATIONAL DESK episodes are responsive to the latter charge. They featured opinions not found elsewhere in the body of programming PBS has presented over the years on gender issues, and they must be evaluated in that larger context.

Many of the allegations of factual inaccuracies, as is often the case in debates about journalism, are actually objections to interpretation, or to how the issue was defined, or a question about the inclusion or exclusion of information. But we did work with the producers, Whidbey Island Films, to probe genuine questions of fact. Our conclusions follow.

  • Regarding the “War on Boys,” a question was raised about evidence to support Barnes’ charge that the AAUW Educational Foundation’s research was “flawed.”

This was clearly Fred Barnes’ own judgment which he delivered to camera and is supported by several interviewees in the body of the show. The producers cited other critiques of the report. The substance of the report was represented accurately; it is legitimate to present other studies that catalog damage to boys.

  • Did the show confuse the 1991 survey with the 1992 report?

Barnes does speak of “1991 when that report came out.” This statement is imprecise and incorrect. This is regrettable, but does not seem to be substantively misleading.

  • Why did the show not cite AAUW research?

Ms. Weinman is presented describing the current research and its findings.

  • AAUW spokespeople were on the air for fewer than three minutes.

It was actually somewhat more than three minutes and amounted to approximately 8% of the body of the show. In fact, all of the interviewees were clinicians and experts in the field; in the interests of both fairness and context, the AAUW was the only institutional voice included.

  • Archival quotes with past AAUW leaders were used, some of them over 6 years old. And Janice Weinman was interviewed a year before the show about a vague set of questions that had nothing to do with specific criticisms by the host or others.

The archival interviews with past AAUW leaders were clearly chyroned and identified as archival. It is a common practice in providing historical context to use statements of this sort that were restricted to contemporaneous remarks by the then spokesperson for the AAUW about he 1992 report. Ms. Weinman was interviewed on June 18, 1998 in the middle of the show’s production schedule (it was distributed by PBS on April 9, 1999); it is typical for PBS programs to be completed months before air. The producers maintain that Ms. Weinman requested and was provided with questions in advance; a review of the interview transcript suggests that the questions were quite specific. On the matter of an AAUW response to specific criticisms, the producers tried without success to have current officers of the organization speak to the criticisms of the 1991 survey and the 1992 report.

  • Pitting the boys against the girls in a war of who is the bigger loser is not a war anyone wants to win.

The producers respond that they agree with this statement and that they consistently made the point in the show that the zero sum game lies at the root of much of the problem. It was their hope for the show that it would contribute to the national debate on how best to serve all of our children. The suggestion that boys need attention is surely relevant to this debate.

  • Presenting Christina Hoff Sommers and other “self-anointed” feminists is a deceptive strategy; interviewees have specious credentials; the episode title indicates the show is thinly disguised advertisement for her work.

Sommers is a recognized authority, and often-published author. It is not the job of the producers to confirm or rebut her self-identification as a feminist. The show featured over 20 voices and a variety of viewpoints. The choice of the title was governed by a sense of what would best “work” in the tv listings, nothing else.

  • Regarding, “Title IX and Women in Sports,” it is asserted that the program misidentified Title IX as part of the Civil Rights Act.

This is a valid criticism. Larry Elder’s introduction speaks of ” . . . something that we call Title IX, which is the short way of saying the ninth title of the 1972 Civil Rights Act. . .” The producers maintain that they were attempting to make the point that Title IX, though part of the Education Amendments of 1972, was in practice civil rights-related legislation whose enforcement was part of the comprehensive Civil Rights enforcement. Larry Elder’s description of Title IX was inaccurate.

  • The program claimed that Title IX has not been applied to the classroom.

The program did not make this claim, but did make the point that enforcement based on the “three-prong” test had only been applied to athletics.

  • The program misstated Title IX’s requirements regarding participation rates, suggesting that schools must have the same number of male and female athletes.

The producers explain that the issue of the proportionality test is what the entire show is about. The test for compliance was not defined in the legislation; it has been developed by the courts, and they have generally determined that proportionality is the surest way to establish compliance. Deborah Brake, Senior Counsel, National Women’s Law Center, and others speak to this.

  • According to the program, the proportionality test is applied to other areas of education.

The program, as noted above, points out that the test was applied only to athletics.

  • The host claims erroneously that anyone can bring a suit under Title IX, even those who have not suffered an injury. . .

Larry Elders’ assertion seems fair in the context of the lengthy discussion about lawsuits brought by private special interest groups. There is provision in the Act that allows for anonymity on the part of the complainant. Lawsuits are sometimes brought by such groups on behalf of anonymous complainants without the need to establish a lack of opportunity. The producers stand by the claim that these suits pressed by private groups, such as the cases discussed by Kocher in the show, are not always complaints about specific conditions contemplated by the legislation.

  • The program also mischaracterized the outcome of significant Title IX cases . . . for example, it claimed that . . . Franlin v. Gwinnett . . . was about winning punitive damages . . . to buttress its claim that the statute allow frivolous suits.

Larry Elder made no such claim; several of the interviewees did, and responses from those who disagreed were presented as counterpoint.

  • The program even dared to pull an old stereotype out of the hat: males are simply more interested in sports than females.

Larry Elder did not assert this; most of the interviewees (including the President of California State University Northridge, and a number of women coaches and administrators) did in discussing their own experiences.

  • Another claim . . . is that the gains made by women under Title IX have come at the expense of men’s minor sports in particular.

The producers question the source of the statistics presented by NWLC, and point to NCAA figures quoted by Kocher. Again, the point is raised by an interviewee, not Elder.

Finally, but not least, we heard a number of questions about the connection between the series underwriters and those appearing in the shows. As you know, underwriters are precluded from participating in program content. To further ensure this distance, we implemented a procedural change in our gathering of program information. Producers must disclose any connections between underwriters and content, including on- or off-screen program participants. (We often elicited this information in any case, but now the producers clearly have an affirmative obligation to inform us.) If the connection is judged to be so direct as to constitute a clear conflict of interest, we would decline to distribute the program.

There may be a limited number of cases, however, in which we feel that the conflict could be adequately ameliorated by providing critical information about it to viewers–in the body of the program or in the production credits. Most PBS programs are accompanied by websites; these would obviously provide venues for even more detailed background information, and we will continue to explore ways to utilize them. Our policies in this area will evolve as we proceed.

Knowing what we know now, we cannot say that we would have handled these NATIONAL DESK episodes any differently. The underwriters had no editorial input or control. The three foundation underwriters together provided less than 25% of the total budget of the series. Further, they did not provide funding to one episode or another depending on their interests, but to the entire series. The foundation underwriters are not single interest entities; they each support a wide variety of projects and their support of NATIONAL DESK is a miniscule part of their overall activities. Most interviewees never have any dealing with these foundations; those who have received grants did so in the course of their own independent careers, and relied on support from many other entities as well. In the end, we believe “disclosure” of tangential connections in this instance may be more misleading and confusing than enlightening.

We do not expect that many minds have been changed about these matters since last November. But we do hope that you and your coalition members will consider as well the many other hours of programs PBS has presented on women’s history and gender policies. Your evaluation of our record does matter to us. Thank you for helping us think about the future. We know you’ll be watching.


Sandra Heberer

Director, News and Information Programming

Tom Epstein

Vice President, Communications

Read FAIR’s response to this letter, and learn more about the Coalition’s critique of National Desk.