Professor cherry-picks pubTV archive for critique of education coverage

By Andrew Lapin

A still from Go Public, a new documentary on public education being offered for PBS distribution. (Photo: Go Public)

A still from Go Public, a new documentary on public education being offered for PBS distribution. (Photo: Go Public)

A new accusation of PBS bias comes from a professor who says the network is attacking public schools.

Occidental College professor Peter Dreier, author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, levels his criticism against PBS and its member stations in a 4,100-word Huffington Post column published last week. Drawing selectively on archival PBS news coverage, he alleges that PBS has uncritically promoted the charter-school movement.

Dreier also uses the op-ed as a platform for promoting the film Go Public, offered for pubTV broadcast this month. To Dreier, the new film and its more positive coverage of public education will have a balancing effect on PBS’s education coverage going back to 2007.

“PBS has gotten in bed with the billionaires and conservatives who want to privatize our public schools,” Dreier writes on HuffPo. According to Dreier, PBS and local stations “have fallen all over themselves to promote” the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman,” which follows children who have entered a charter school lottery.

Waiting for “Superman” has drawn criticism from outlets including the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books, as well as from education researchers, who point to factual inaccuracies and fault its portrayal of charter schools as overly simplistic. The film was a box office success but has never been distributed for broadcast on PBS.

To back up his criticism of public TV’s “hyper-support” of Waiting for “Superman,” Drier points to a 2010 interview with Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, on the now-defunct WNET series Need to Know. Dreier also criticized a 2010 blog post by former Need to Know co-host Alison Stewart, taking issue with her description of the film as “about the sad state of public education.”

“In other words, PBS accepted Guggenheim’s perspective as a fact rather than a point-of-view,” Dreier wrote. “This is just another example of PBS’ blatant bias.”

Though Dreier describes the network’s coverage of the film as “perhaps the most egregious example of PBS’s unfair and unbalanced approach to public schools,” the archival interview and web post are the only evidence he uses to back up his critique.

Dreier also alleges that pubTV has favored content featuring controversial education reform advocates such as Michelle Rhee, but he chooses selectively from PBS’ back catalog. PBS has run several programs on Rhee, including what Dreier refers to as a “glowing profile” of the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools as part of a 2007 series on public education. But last year WGBH’s Frontline also aired a critical look at Rhee’s policies, “The Education of Michelle Rhee,” which Dreier does not mention.

Dreier devotes half of his op-ed to Go Public, a “day in the life” documentary captured in California’s Pasadena Unified Schools district. Dreier has written extensively about the film in other outlets, including a 2013 guest column in the Washington Post, and he urges HuffPo readers “who care about public schools” to tell their local PBS stations to pick up the show.

The National Educational Telecommunications Association is offering Go Public for pubTV distribution beginning in late April, and pubTV stations including Los Angeles’s KLCS, Tucson’s KUAT and Indianapolis’s WFYI have already put it on their schedules.

  • Cynthia Zeiden

    Thank you for this article. I am the station relations rep for “Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District.” Here is a link: http://gopublicproject.org/
    Please let me know if you have any questions about the film–or–if you have any carriage info;)

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