Strong op-ed from the right draws strong feminist reply

Originally published in Current, Dec. 13, 1999
By Karen Everhart Bedford

A coalition of leading feminist organizations recently challenged PBS's editorial judgment in carrying National Desk, a right-leaning public affairs series that in April delivered three programs on "unintended negative consequences" of the feminist movement.

Media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) led the critique by organizing the coalition and lobbying for months for a meeting with PBS officials, which was held [in November 1999] at PBS headquarters. Coalition reps challenged the factual accuracy of the National Desk "gender wars" programs, alleging that they are "filled with inaccuracies and misinformation," and disingenuously packaged as impartial journalism.

The coalition also pointed to a perceived problem of funder influence in the series, which was underwritten by the same foundations--John M. Olin Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife--that directly or indirectly support some of the experts interviewed during the programs.

FAIR has used the coalition's objections to National Desk to underline its longstanding complaint that PBS's public affairs programming caters to corporate and conservative interests and disproportionately excludes the views of women and minorities. "National Desk exemplifies the larger problems with PBS's line-up as a whole--an overrepresentation of conservative and corporate perspectives," says Jennifer Pozner, director of FAIR's women's desk.

"FAIR and its allies should consider the nature of PBS and how it came into being and ... be very circumspect in these empty attacks on shows like ours and on the system, lest they create the impression that PBS is their occupied territory," warns Lionel Chetwynd, executive producer of National Desk. "They should pay closer attention to the mandate of PBS and the Corporation [for Public Broadcasting], which, after all, exist on a year-to-year basis." He characterized the concerns raised by the coalition as a "petty, meaningless and barren debate" that is "almost Stalinist in its inflexibility."

PBS's standard response to allegations of political bias in programs has been that it aims for its schedule to include a diversity of viewpoints within a reasonable period of time. This philosophy, also widely espoused by station programmers, helps insulate scheduling decisions from political considerations, deflect criticism when any particular program generates an angry reaction, and respond to arguments that public TV is beholden to the left or right.

But critics who complain of liberal or conservative bias in PBS programs aren't won over by promises of a balanced schedule. Those who see PBS as a bastion of liberalism point to the multiculturalism in Sesame Street. As for the left, every white male corporate executive and federal bureaucrat appearing on the NewsHour offers further evidence that PBS fails in its mission to provide alternatives to mainstream media and thinking.

In the center, PBS makes programming decisions that must appear to rise above the rough and tumble political system through which its member stations annually receive federal funding. "We do not take orders from ideological special interests on what to air," said chief PBS spokesman Tom Epstein in a Boston Globe article about the coalition's objections to National Desk.

Taking on feminism

But National Desk itself won its regular but limited presence on public TV from a political shoving match on a bigger scale than the recent feminist response. The program might never have gotten CPB backing if conservatives had not exerted political pressure on the system to correct a perceived "liberal bias." When Congress reminded CPB in its 1992 reauthorization bill that it is responsible for ensuring "objectivity and balance" in programming, CPB provided funds to help develop the series (then called Reverse Angle). Chetwynd, an experienced Hollywood producer and political ally of pubcasting critic David Horowitz, teamed up with conservative columnists Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke to create the series. The producers butted heads with PBS programmers over the first few installments; but, under the leadership of former President Ervin Duggan, PBS and the producers agreed to repackage and relaunch the series as National Desk in 1997.

Chetwynd says he was never interested in defining National Desk as a "right-wing show" or an antidote to Frontline and P.O.V., the two PBS programs most irksome to political conservatives. But he did give the program a distinct political itinerary. "We want our ideology to be defined by the subjects we're prepared to address." The subjects they have taken on are clearly on the conservative agenda--"Redefining Racism, "Children of Divorce," and "The Politics of Medicine" (the last of which examined how the allocation of federal monies for medical research is driven by political considerations). "We believe there are things that aren't being discussed because conservatives are too baffled by the problem of addressing them, and liberals are uncomfortable by the potential outcomes of addressing them," says Chetwynd.

In April, National Desk got around to the prized legislative trophies of feminism, finding that the political movement to achieve gender equity in schools, athletics and the military has become detrimental to the upbringing and education of boys, unfair to male athletes, and harmful to national security.

When PBS fed the National Desk "gender wars" programs in April, fewer than 60 percent of PBS-member stations carried the series, typically in less-viewed timeslots, and it generated ratings "well, well below" PBS's national primetime average rating of 2.1, according to Tom Epstein, PBS spokesman. One major-market station manager characterized the program's timeslot at his station as "far beyond marginal."

Little boy plays shoot-em-up with stick

One program in the National Desk series puts forth the view that the schools penalize boys for their natural aggressiveness.

The "gender wars" programs are persuasive, highly produced op-eds delivered by conservative commentators Fred Barnes, Larry Elder and Laura Ingraham. In each episode, the host walks into a virtual-reality set that simulates a huge editorial board room, and spells out a clear thesis. A bank of TV monitors in the background display the various experts who deliver pro and con arguments to advance or counter the host's own view. Each host emphatically states that much good has resulted from the women's movement, but insists with urgency that the negative outcomes must be examined. When an interviewed expert asserts that "boys are at risk of becoming tomorrow's second sex," Barnes comments, "That wasn't hyperbole."

At the top of "Politics and Warriors: Women in the Military," Ingraham introduces the program as an examination of whether "political agendas, particularly a feminist agenda -- and certain weak-kneed politicians -- have allowed the issue of women in the military to be guided by political correctness rather than military efficiency." The program doesn't name the weak-kneed leaders, but it works at discrediting the notion that women can perform in combat roles as effectively as men. Regardless of what the experts say from one side or the other, the dominant images in the program are of hesitant female soldiers struggling and failing to climb over obstacles and carry heavy gear, juxtaposed against shots of males breezing through the same exercises.

"I think it was crafted in a way to make it sound like the experts and opinion makers all agreed that we've gone too far," comments David Sadker, an education professor and gender equity expert at American University who joined the coalition. "You have to contain on public broadcasting some sense of neutrality and constraints on hyperbole." He alleges that opinions offered on National Desk were vastly overstated and exaggerated.

The programs identify major women's rights organizations such as the American Association of University Women and the National Women's Law Center as responsible for what the hosts describe as ill-conceived approaches to achieving gender equity. Both of these groups were among the 33 individuals and organizations signing on to the Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting. The National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, also were members.

Do standards shift with political winds?

In the meeting with PBS officials, coalition representatives challenged the factual accuracy of National Desk and the journalistic ethics of its producers, and questioned the editorial standards by which PBS accepted the programs for broadcast. "This is not a matter of radical feminists being pissed off because girls were portrayed as sissies," says Pozner. Coalition members presented "page after page of factual errors" in the gender wars programs.

The coalition also made specific requests of PBS: that it adhere to and publish a single set of program guidelines, support a series on gender equity hosted by feminists "equivalent in length and urgency" to those delivered on National Desk, air a weekly public affairs program with "a feminist/progressive host," and outline a plan to "increase the numbers of women and people of color appearing as sources, guests and hosts" on PBS shows. PBS promised only to investigate the alleged inaccuracies and funding conflicts.

"PBS says its guidelines at the end of the day are interpreted by human beings who have to make judgments, so all we can look at to make a judgment is the actual number of shows that get on the air and are kept off the air," explains Posner. "It seems to be a shifting standard or not a standard at all." She points to PBS's rejection of "Out at Work," a film on workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians that received partial funding from labor unions and a lesbian rights organization. "How can Olin, Bradley and Scaife [foundations] --which organize and supply the right wing with legislation and research around their issues--not have a direct vested interest in this program?," she asks, referring to National Desk's funders. Several experts featured in National Desk received either direct or indirect funding from these same foundations, she notes.

Perceptions of conflict of interest over program funding is an issue that PBS is already working to correct, according to PBS's Epstein. The issue arose this summer over a Bill Moyers documentary on campaign finance reform, "Free Speech for Sale," in which Moyers interviewed several reform advocates from organizations that received funding from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, of which he is president [earlier article].

With National Desk, PBS is exploring how to disclose relationships between "foundation grant recipients" who appear in programs underwritten by the same funders, Epstein explains. "There are a lot of complexities in different sorts of relationships, and we are trying to look at the whole picture and develop some guidelines," particularly disclosure requirements of program producers. "They are in the best position to know whether the people interviewed have received any funding from the foundations underwriting the program."

"We are virginal compared to some of the conflicts of interest demonstrated by others from the other side of the political spectrum," says Chetwynd, referring to disclosure issues raised by the Moyers documentary. If National Desk received funding from PBS, or the MacArthur Foundation, this complaint would be moot. "We were forced into this situation and are grateful to our funders for their courage."

Epstein notes that "nothing special" is being done for FAIR and the coalition. "Anyone who documents evidence of inaccuracies we would look into and ask the producers to respond. A lot of times, what some might perceive to be inaccuracies might be opinions expressed, or beliefs, or the interpretation of facts by those interviewed in the program. Our editorial objective is to provide a wide range of viewpoints and opinions in a way that allows viewers to make up their own minds."

"Every program has a spin of some kind, but a respectable program will encounter the arguments of the other side," comments Mike Sullivan, executive producer of Frontline. "We have people lobbying us all the time who seem to be ideologues." He describes the difference between a producer who is motivated by ideology and one who, "having worked through a territory, comes up with an idea of what they think is important. It's sort of an earned opinion by the hard work that they've done. Our challenge is--are you willing to encounter the other arguments?"

Chetwynd is disheartened by the flak he's gotten for National Desk, and uncertain about its future. Although six programs will be delivered to PBS next year, the producer's "ongoing relationship with PBS is currently under close examination and discussion," he says.

"We chose not to fight back other than to assert our good faith and belief that we were consistent and duly diligent on everything that was in there," he says. "To our knowledge, the people at PBS and their spokespeople have not broken faith with us at all. They came under fire and were beaten up badly, but they didn't break faith."

Female soldier struggles through obstacle course

Cameras catch flailing female Army trainees in one National Desk film.



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Earlier news: Chetwynd's series debuted in October 1997 with conservative journalists' takes on touchy issues like: black racism and the failure of the black leadership; divorce as a legacy of the '60s; and the government's unfair response to fatal diseases--other than AIDS.

Earlier news: Critics of National Desk complain that it advances views of its foundation funders -- and its producers point to a 1999 Bill Moyers documentary, in which Moyers interviewed advocates for liberal views who get grants from a foundation that Moyers heads.

Outside links: Preview for January 2000 National Desk programs on campaign finance, and web site of FAIR's Feminist Coalition on Public Broadcasting.

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