MediaWatch August 1993

Vol. Seven No. 8

PBS Documentary Series Routinely Excludes Conservative Experts, Topics

Stacking the Deck at Frontline

The PBS series Frontline portrays itself as a tough investigative program willing to tackle any issue. But how does it stand up to investigation? MediaWatch analysts reviewed every new Frontline broadcast during the last three seasons (72 programs) and found:

Conservative arguments and experts were completely ignored in eight programs on race relations and seven shows on the environment. In another 15 investigations of domestic politics, 40 percent of topics came from a left-wing issue agenda. In foreign policy, 42 percent of topics came from the left, 4 percent from the right.

Race Relations. In eight programs on race, not a single conservative voice appeared. In 1990's "Throwaway People," Roger Wilkins, a fellow at the radical Institute for Policy Studies, expounded on inner-city decline: "In the '80s.... the old racist libel about moral inferiority that used to be leveled at blacks was now focused on the poor. It justified crippling the only programs that provided any ladder at all. The Reagan Revolution slashed $51 billion in social spending."

Other programs contended that lack of gun control is the reason black teenagers are murdered more often than whites, and that racist banks deny loans to deserving black applicants. In "Black America's War," Anita Hill confidant Charles Ogletree moderated a one-sided panel discussion with Hodding Carter, Jesse Jackson, and Newsweek's Joe Klein [then with New York].

A lead-in documentary set the tone: "The disengagement of the rich, the growing divide between black and white: the arguments seemed a metaphor for what this country had become in the 1980s. One writer, looking at how differently the war was perceived by whites and blacks, dubbed it the Reagan-Bush gap." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was called a sell-out: "Domestic programs were being cut, civil rights leaders protested loudly. [Gen. Colin] Powell remained loyal to Weinberger and Reagan. They, in turn, were loyal to him." Powell was even attacked in victory: "This man would go on to orchestrate in the Persian Gulf one of the most punishing bombing campaigns ever unleashed....yet few have chosen to criticize Powell for that."

Environment. In seven shows, none included conservative voices. The most recent: Moyers' March 30 "In Our Children's Food," linking pesticides to cancer in children. Other shows included a four-part series on development in the rain forests, and another Moyers documentary (co-produced by the left-wing Center for Investigative Reporting) that the United States is turning the earth into a "global dumping ground" for hazardous waste.

Foreign Policy. Frontline's favorite topic is foreign policy, the subject of 24 of the 72 programs (33 percent). Ten of those 24 (42 percent) came from a left-wing agenda. Programs included a graphic depiction of civilian casualties of U.S. bombing in Iraq by leftists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn; the allegation that Oliver North used Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite as a dupe; and endorsements for a Japanese-style industrial policy for America.

Frontline also enjoyed hunting down Republican foreign policy scandals. Bill Moyers hosted "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," a look at Iran-Contra. He saw the scandal in almost apocalyptic terms. "What happened in Iran-Contra was nothing less than the systematic disregard for democracy itself...officials who boasted of themselves as men of the Constitution showed utter contempt for the law. They had the money and power to do what they wanted, the guile to hide their tracks, and the arrogance to declare what they did was legal."

Robert Parry reported two programs charging that the 1980 Reagan campaign conspired to delay the release of the hostages in Iran. The first program aired in April of 1991. After The New Republic, Newsweek, and even the Village Voice denounced the October Surprise theory as fraudulent, Frontline devoted yet another hour to renouncing Parry's initial sources as liars, but suggesting they may have been sent out to lie by the CIA.

Conservatives were allowed to answer hostile inquiries, but Frontline foreign policy investigations never aired conservative arguments, such as the illegitimacy of the Boland Amendments restricting contra aid.

Only one show reflected a conservative theme. "Cuba and Cocaine" detailed the Castro government's role in the drug trade, but criticisms of the regime at large were nonexistent. An October 17, 1992, Castro biography, "The Last Communist," ignored the drug charges and gave only brief mention to human rights abuses. It's little wonder. In 1990, Washington Times television writer Don Kowet reported filmmaker Nestor Almendros was told: "Frontline does not co-produce anti-communist programs."

Domestic Politics. Of the 15 shows on domestic politics, six (40 percent) came from the left. Frontline did not limit its taste for right-wing threats to foreign affairs."The Resurrection of Reverend Moon" hinted that the conservative movement is partially controlled by the leaders of the Unification Church. Last season, Frontline outlined unproven charges that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a transvestite.

Topics also included David Duke, with no corresponding investigation of anyone on the extreme left with disreputable views; a 60-minute complaint that the U.S. does not have a "national energy strategy" because of Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu; and a Bill Moyers look at the supposedly significant domestic opposition to the Gulf War. Only an April 1992 investigation of then-Gov. Bill Clinton's child welfare reform program would please a conservative, even if the critique came from the left.

Reagan-Bush victories were belittled by former Washington Post editor William Greider in a two-hour 1992 special. "The Republican Party's artful election strategy has been accomplished not by addressing the real economic concerns of the disaffected working class but by broadcasting messages attuned to their resentments," he sermonized. "They concocted a rancid populism, perfectly attuned to the age of political decay. The party of money won national elections mainly by posing as the party of the alienated." Speaking of making money, Greider's essay aired just as his book Who Will Tell the People hit book stores.

In the last three years, Frontline has produced some fine non-political shows, on topics such as baseball's financial troubles. On political issues, however, its bias is beyond question. Frontline producers have argued that they simply examine those in power, and Republicans held the White House. But how do they explain the lack of investigative stories on the misuse of power in Congress or entrenched regulatory agencies?