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A view of the books' spines
Public broadcasting bookshelf

Here are titles and sources for many of the recent books about public broadcasting. If you know of others, please send us information.

Public broadcasting history and critiques

Recovering a Public Vision for Public Television, by Glenda R. Balas, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Md., 2003, 168 pages, $24.95 paperback, $65 hardcover. Balas, a former staffer at KENW, the public TV station in Portales, N.M., and now an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of New Mexico, both criticizes and supports public broadcasting. She describes her book as "an indictment of public broadcasting's failure to construct itself as an agent of public talk and social reform." She finds a "failure of resolve" among pubcasters during three periods when noncommercial broadcasting fought for public resources and attention—in debates over the Wagner-Hatfield Act of 1934, FCC hearings on TV channel allocations in the 1950s, and the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967. Pubcasting is "far from unredeemable," Balas concludes, suggesting steps to increase public involvement in production, put more civic discourse on the air, dedicate itself to reforms in American life including media reform, and adopt an identity and mission that goes beyond being an alternative to commercial broadcasting.

Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest, edited by Michael P. McCauley, Eric E. Peterson, B. Lee Artz and Dee Dee Halleck, M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2002, 336 pages, $65.95 hardback, $24.95 paperback. This volume gives a progressive critique of the field based on papers given at a June 2000 conference at the University of Maine. Writers include Robert McChesney, Matthew Lasar, Gary Poon, William Hoynes and the editors.

Viewers Like You? How Public TV Failed the People, by Laurie Ouellette, Columbia University Press, August 2002, 288 pages, $18.50 paperback, $52.50 hardcover. Ouellette, assistant professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, "argues that public TV’s rejection of popular culture has cut the legs off its capacity to appeal to the public it purports to serve," in the words of The Rake website. Former PBS President Larry Grossman, writing in Columbia Journalism Review called the book "an academic, thoroughly researched, although narrowly and at times maddeningly doctrinaire 'cultural studies' analysis of PBS."

The Other Face of Public Television: Censoring the American Dream, by Roger P. Smith, Algora Publishing, 2002, 314 pages. Smith, described as a former independent and station producer, argues that public TV's potential as an "instrument of freedom and democracy" has been "straight-jacketed" by interference from business and government, according to blurbs for the book. In a blurb for the publisher, Robert W. McChesney called the book "a provocative and damning critique" of the field.

The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, by David Barsamian, South End Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2001, 88 pages, $8 paperback or $30 clothbound. Barsamian, producer of the syndicated program Alternative Radio, contrasts the work of progressive outside journalists and activists with public broadcasting, which "increasingly reflects the mentality of corporate America," according to his publisher's blurb. Pacifica journalist-in-exile Amy Goodman writes the foreword and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the writer and death-row prisoner, contributes the afterword.

Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting, by Jerold Starr, Beacon Press, May 2000, 288 pages, $26 hardcover. Starr — the founding executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting — gives an activist's analysis of local public TV management based on his conflicts over the years with WQED, Pittsburgh. The local activists' major battle there has been to stop WQED's plan to sell its second channel to cover a large debt. As a political progressive, Starr and colleagues also campaigned for accountability to the broader community and for broadened programming, including programs for labor and minorities.

A History of Public Broadcasting, by John Witherspoon and Roselle Kovitz with an update by Robert Avery and Alan Stavitsky, published by Current, January 2000, 138 pages, $12 paperback. A concise orientation and introduction to the history and structure of public TV and radio in the U.S., with a focus on policy and organizational development. With extensive timeline and bibliography. The first eight chapters by Witherspoon and Kovitz date to the mid-1980s. Avery (University of Utah) and Stavitsky (University of Oregon) wrote three more chapters for this edition. More details, including bulk price and ordering information.

Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio, by Tom McCourt, Praeger Publishers, 1999, 224 pages, $55. McCourt, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Springfield, looks at the ways NPR (and by extension public broadcasting generally) has succeeded and failed in serving the public. During the three decades that he covers, public radio developed enormously and changed its methods of relating to the public. The first chapter is posted online.

Made Possible By . . . : The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, by James Ledbetter, Verso, November 1997, 280 pages, $25. Village Voice media writer James Ledbetter developed the book from a 1992 article in the Voice, and got it out in time for CPB’s 30th anniversary. He seems to have spent months in archives to document cases of political and corporate influence on pubcasting programs. He focuses on the system’s failings, but supports the concept of pubcasting. Ledbetter endorses Henry Geller’s idea of improving the quality of the CPB Board by having its members nominated to the White House by a merit selection panel. And he suggests creation of some mechanism, like an ombudsman, to hold decision-makers accountable and goose them occasionally. Most controversially, he recommends spending less airtime and money on children’s programs. Critics reasonably take issue with Ledbetter’s subtitle. The book "is the story not of the death of public broadcasting, but its deadening," wrote Carl Sessions Stepp in American Journalism Review. Ledbetter’s examples "make a powerful case that it has been co-opted and sanitized." Stepp credits Ledbetter for "admirable balance." In the Washington Post, reviewer Stephen Stark agreed: "Despite his leftish credentials . . . he is not an ideologue. Indeed, there’s enough material here to irritate friend and foe of public broadcasting alike. Ledbetter’s view is balanced, his eye is cold and sharp, and his research exhaustive." "The book is valuable for its many illustrations of how both political and corporate meddling have damaged public broadcasting," wrote Martha Bayles in the Times.

PBS: Behind the Screen, by Laurence A. Jarvik, 1997, Forum/Prime Publishing, Rocklin, Calif., 336 pages. $25 hardcover. Jarvik, whose work for the Heritage Foundation and for David Horowitz’s Comint magazine provided ammunition for congressional accusations against pubcasting in 1991-96, gives fans occasionally interesting chapters on Masterpiece Theatre (his dissertation topic) and other major series, but with an overlay of ideological disdain for anything leftish or outside of the private sector. Sesame Street’s efficacy and Bill Moyers’ political past come in for sharp attacks. San Francisco Chronicle critic John Carman called the book "a mere diatribe" that seeks out "liberal bogeymen." Carman directed readers to James Day’s The Vanishing Vision (see below) for "a more balanced account." And Stephen Stark, in the Washington Post called Jarvik "a think tank hack" and dispenser of "cookie-cutter dogma." But critics in conservative publications cheered Jarvik. "Again and again, Mr. Jarvik provides examples of dishonesty and hypocrisy at the heart of the public broadcasting enterprise," wrote James Bowman in the Wall Street Journal op-ed section.

Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, by Ralph Engelman, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1996, 342 pages in paperback. Engelman, a journalism professor at Long Island University and a onetime Pacifica Foundation board member, emphasizes the political dimension of history, giving more-than-equal time to the radio side, going back to the utter defeat of public-sector radio in the 1920s and 1930s and providing an especially interesting chapter on Pacifica’s turbulent history. Communication Booknotes, a newsletter for professors, observed: "He analyzes this long history with a point of view with which some may disagree. Engelman is part of the "critical studies" school. But his treatment seems even-handed, pulling in a variety of players and points of view in the often-complicated story."

The Vanishing Vision: The Inside Story of Public Television, by James Day, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, 443 pages. Day, the founding president of KQED in San Francisco and later president of National Educational Television, gives the most readable and intimate account of public TV’s development in the 1950s and since, with a welcome focus on programming. Day naturally has a front-row view of NET’s history and the period around the Nixon Administration’s assault and the founding of PBS. "A valuable and partially inside account of the struggle to create a public-service television system in this country . . . a fascinating and important book," summed up Communication Booknotes.

Public Broadcasting & the Public Trust, edited by David Horowitz and Laurence Jarvik, Second Thoughts Books (Center for the Study of Popular Culture), Los Angeles, 1995, $9.95, 296 pages in paperback. The editors assemble articles from the first four years of Horowitz’s Comint, a quarterly published by his Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which shaped the right-wing critique of public broadcasting starting in 1991. Jarvik and Horowitz came at pubcasting with complementary (not at all complimentary) takes: Jarvik opposed federal funding and Horowitz saw liberal bias in PBS programming. Articles find bias in NPR programming as well as public TV’s, and assert that public TV favors Democrats, that the Independent Television Service is a boondoggle and that Pacifica Radio promotes antisemitism.

Public Television for Sale: Media, the Market and the Public Sphere, by William Hoynes, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1994, 207 pages in paperback. After the 1992 allegations of public TV bias from Sen. Robert Dole, Hoynes, a Vassar College sociologist, counterattacks with a critique from the left. He finds that public TV, lacking a strong mission, is letting the search for underwriting revenue drive it toward safe programming. Based on a content analysis of MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, compared with ABC News programs, Hoynes concludes that the NewsHour has a somewhat broader selection of story topics but its array of interviewees is just as limited: the PBS program "roots itself within the same narrow [politcal] ‘consensus’ presented by network news shows." "This is a welcome book--there has been far too little attention paid to public television in this country, and this critical assessment raises valid questions," said Communication Booknotes.

Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-35, by Robert W. McChesney, Oxford University Press, 1993, 393 pages. McChesney, an assistant professor of journalism and mass comm at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reminds us that there was opposition, sometimes widespread but ultimately unsuccessful, to the commercial domination of radio and TV. Going back to the 1920s, he tracks the sometimes-fierce competition between the educators' broadcast reform movement with "the American system," as commercial broadcasting became known. McChesney introduces the reader to a large cast of players who formed (and failed to form) the new medium of radio (and television, by extension). Leading broadcast historian Erik Barnouw wrote this cover blurb: "How our nation was maneuvered, during pre-television years, into a broadcasting system controlled by and for business is traced in illuminating detail in this remarkable study ..."

Televisionaries: In their Own Words, Public Television’s Founders Tell How It All Began, by Jim Robertson, Tabby House Books, Charlotte Harbor, Fla., 1993, 285 pages, $29.95 hardcover. Robertson, a founder of public TV stations in Los Angeles and Chicago, bases the book on a CPB-funded oral history project--a 19,000-mile road trip in 1981 with his wife Anabel--in which he interviewed 55 key figures in the field’s early days. He pays rare and special attention to the local stories behind major stations as well as national events, mostly since the 1950s. The book is rich with anecdotes, though somewhat disjointed because it relies so heavily on direct quotations."This is an important historical record of information found nowhere else," said Communication Booknotes.

Quality Time?: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Public Television, The Twentieth Century Fund Press, New York, 1993, 188 pages paperback, $9.95. The report drew attention briefly in July 1993 with one of its 22 recommendations that CPB respond to cable competition by redirecting grants from stations to national program production. The 21 task force members, largely well connected with New York City's pubcasting establishment, included Chairman Vartan Gregorian, a former WNYC Board member, and the former and future presidents of PBS, Larry Grossman and Ervin Duggan (who dissented on the use of CPB funds). The volume includes a 100-page background paper, "Public Television: The Ballpark’s Changing," by Richard Somerset-Ward, an expatriate former BBC production executive.

Public Television: Panacea, Pork Barrel or Public Trust?, by Marilyn Lashley, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1992, 147 pages. Prof. Lashley, then a public policy specialist in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, criticizes public TV for its performance in fostering program diversity, employment diversity and service to underserved audiences. "By minimally satisfying some of the goals of all groups [in its supporting coalition], public television maintains the coalition of support necessary for increased appropriations," she writes. In the end, Lashley gives public TV a "C-" for strategic management and an "A+" for survival and argues that the field be held accountable for its meeting objectives.

Programs in public broadcasting

An American Family: A Televised Life, by Jeffrey Ruoff, University of Minnesota Press, February 2002, 184 pages, $19.95 paperback, $49.95 hardcover. Ruoff, an assistant professor of film and television studies at Dartmouth College, tells how WNET and its producers created the pioneering 1973 observational documentary series for PBS and how America received it.

The PBS Companion: A History of Public Television, by David Stewart, TV Books, 1999. Stewart describes the origins of many of the best-known PBS series, such as Nova, Sesame Street and Wall Street Week, as well as influential educational programs that came before PBS, such as Frank Baxter's Bell Telephone Hour programs. Most chapters were serialized in Current, but do not appear on this web site. Stewart, who worked in public TV during its early years, served for many years as CPB's director of international activities. He is now a freelance writer and contributing editor of Current.

Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture, by Barry Dornfeld, Princeton University Press, March 1998, 248 pages, $17.95 paperback. Dornfeld, an anthropologist who teaches at New York University, applies ethnographic techniques to the process of making a major PBS documentary seriesChildhood, for which he was a researcher. As a consultant in Philadelpha, Dornfeld has been working with WHYY on its strategic plan, he said.

Public Television: Politics and the Battle over Documentary Film, by B.J. Bullert, Rutgers University Press, January 1998, 224 pages, $20 paperback. Bullert, then a communications professor at American University and now an independent filmmaker in Seattle, expanded her dissertation to profile six controversial public TV documentaries in the period 1985-93, the various uproars that they caused and how public TV reacted. Bullert, like Larry Jarvik, came to her faith as an independent producer frustrated by public TV (though Bullert has had several shows aired by KCTS, Seattle). The book contrasts the ways of P.O.V. and Frontline and then provides case studies of the six half-dozen potatoes: "Dark Circle," rejected by PBS in 1986 and carried eventually by P.O.V. in 1989, about radiation dangers at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant; "Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians," 1989, a Palestinian take on the conflict with Israel; "Tongues Untied," 1991, a frank essay from the viewpoint of a black gay man; "Stop the Church," later in 1991, a celebration of a demonstration by AIDS activists against Catholic Church policies; "Roger & Me" and "The Heartbeat of America," 1992-93, both documentaries critical of the auto industry. Pat Aufderheide, an American University colleague of Bullert’s, wrote in The Nation that the book is "an admirable ‘thick description’ of how and why shows outside mainstream expectations end up on public television. . . . It’s designed to explain, not indict--though its unflinching portraits of flabby, interlocked bureaucracies will make insiders squirm."

The Sound and the Story: NPR and the Art of Radio, by Thomas Looker, Houghton Mifflin, 1995, 421 pages. Looker, a onetime NPR staffer, satisfies NPR fans with detailed accounts of how the major shows are produced, and were developed, with special attention to the ongoing tug-of-war between the hard-news and radio-art factions of its news staff. "An important and fascinating and well-timed look at the world of National Public Radio," blurbed Communication Booknotes. It’s "a most readable volume," though it lacks an index.

Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality, by Laurence A. Jarvik, Scarecrow Press, December 1998, $60. Jarvik, a persistent critic of public broadcasting and taxpayer funding, builds on his doctoral dissertation about a corporate-funded series that he likes, despite its presence on PBS. Jarvik's PBS: Behind the Screen in 1997 (see below) summarized much of the right-wing case against pubcasting, and descriptions of the new book indicate that it will carry some of that argument.

Commercial broadcasting and the context for public broadcasting

Down the Tube: an Inside Account of the Failure of American Television, by William F. Baker and George Dessart, Basic Books, April 1998, 332 pages, $24. The latest book in this roundup is probably the only one launched with a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. U.S. television is bad largely because of the history of laissez-faire regulation by the government, which has never recognized the power of this medium or made clear its responsibilities," according to Baker and Dessart, a former CBS v.p. who teaches broadcasting at Brooklyn College and directs the Center for the Study of World Television. They put a good deal of hope in public TV, but devote just one chapter to a 50-page, streamlined telling of public TV’s history, with an accounting of its strengths and weaknesses (it lacks "a clearly articulated mission"), and a series of recommendations for the next century. They oppose commercialization of pubcasting and favor a federal trust fund. Other recommendations: rationalize the system, establish common carriage, increase promotion, develop new revenue streams, strengthen ties with school's, libraries and museums. Problems: duplication among stations, PBS's failure to consult the major producing stations, and the imbalances of the one-station, one-vote system that largely governs PBS.

The international scene

The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting, by Michael Tracey, Oxford University Press, 1998. Tracey, a professor at the University of Colorado, director of its Center for Mass Media Research and former head of Britain's Broadcasting Research Unit, analyzes the principles of public broadcasting, traces its history in Britain, Japan and Germany and looks at its place in American broadcasting. Tracey concludes that public broadcasting is "the single most important social, cultural and journalistic institution of the 20th century," and that its likely disappearance is "an indication of a real and deep-seated crisis within liberal democracy," according to a book-cover blurb.

For more information on media books

Communication Booknotes, cited several times above, is a quarterly journal edited by Christopher Sterling of George Washington University. For subscription info, contact Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, (201) 236-9500.



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Web page based on a list published in Current, June 22, 1998
Updated July 15, 2003
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