Before You Pledge to PBS...
by L. Brent Bozell III
December 5, 1996
"Pledge week" is on again at many local PBS affiliates, which apparently often believe a "week" lasts two or three weeks. But before you or your friends pony up another donation, perhaps you ought to take a share of that money and get Laurence Jarvik's new book, "PBS: Behind the Screen."
The book is not an angry investigative jeremiad which pleads for privatization on every page. When Jarvik writes warmly about the aplomb of Alistair Cooke or Julia Child, you recognize the author doesn't hate public TV - in fact, he's been a member of Washington station WETA. The book is to be recommended not simply for its message of public broadcasting reform, but to any reader interested in a historical primer on how some of the network's most prominent shows arrived on the air, from Julia Child to Monty Python to Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose."
What bothers Jarvik the reformer are two things. First is the decades-long refusal of PBS to live up to its promise -congressionally mandated to boot - of fairness and balance, often opting instead for crude propaganda attacking the conservative vision in general, its leaders in particular. Second, and perhaps more salient for the PBS audience, the network's incessant beggaring for funds from Congress and viewer alike, at the same time the stations and their programming suppliers dine on wine and cheese buffets, become merchandising millionaires, even carry large stock and bond portfolios.
Since his first Washington wonk stint at the Heritage Foundation in 1992, Jarvik has presented the hard data to show how a network founded out of contempt for commercial television has become a fattened sacred cow abusing its own principles, a network of sweetheart deals between liberal friends who use PBS as their own Liberal Home Shopping Club.
Take the Children's Television Workshop, whose chief Joan Ganz Cooney once proclaimed: "The provisions of good programs for children must be removed from the free enterprise system and be made a public service." Jarvik notes: "Yet, CTW has licensed products since the day 'Sesame Street' went on the air" - now in the billions of dollars. Today, CTW contracts out the making of its "Sesame Street" toys to cheap Asian laborers. Perhaps we ought to call them Children's Television Sweatshop.
Take Bill Moyers. Jarvik reveals that Moyers is not just an interviewer; he's a salesman whose programs are one part interview, one part infomercial. In one of his most successful ventures, "The Power of Myth" with spiritual guru Joseph Campbell, Moyers, unbeknownst to his audience, had entered into a partnership agreement with Campbell's publisher giving him a share in the proceeds of a book in connection with the series. "The fact that Moyers was selling Campbell's mythologies for his own personal profit was not disclosed to the viewing public during the broadcast, to the press, or in Moyers' own filings with PBS," Jarvik notes, suggesting this could have been judged a violation of PBS guidelines and kept from the airwaves.
But PBS has no standards and practices department to investigate conflicts of interest, or even grievous inaccuracies. Jarvik notes the historical travesty of the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Liberators," which claimed a battalion of black soldiers liberated the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Despite complaints before the show's November 1992 broadcast, it took months for New York station WNET and "The American Experience" to investigate the film, which it later acknowledged was inaccurate. "Needless to say, no PBS, CPB, WGBH, or WNET official has been publicly disciplined or held accountable for the errors in the program," Jarvik reports. Worse yet, although the film was eventually pulled off the air, PBS officials did not remove it from the home video market. This failure to apologize for inaccuracy is endemic to PBS, as any victim of the documentary series "Frontline" can testify.
Even pledge drives are exposed as dishonest in the book. Former Mobil PR man Herb Schmertz marvels at how stations would use "Masterpiece Theatre," fully funded by Mobil, as a fundraising tool at begging time. "For you to make the statement that it's because of 'Masterpiece Theatre' that people should give money to public television is a lie. It's not truth in advertising." The same goes for much of PBS's most popular programming, like "Sesame Street" or "Barney & Friends," which generate fortunes through merchandising, but those dishonest pitches continue.
Just as the network has consistently refused to present both sides of public controversies, PBS has never waged a fair fight over...PBS. At the height of the debate over continued taxpayer funding of PBS, PBS had spent $2 million (belonging to those taxpayers) on an ad campaign, then used public airwaves to endlessly broadcast these free commercials for themselves. If PBS were truly devotees of balance, they'd be offering Jarvik's book as a pledge drive premium.