Ethics & Public Policy Center

Close Sesame?

Published in The American Enterprise on May 1, 1997


PBS: Behind the Screen
By Laurence Jarvik,
Forum, 336 pages, $25

Like many other viewers, I have enjoyed Upstairs, Downstairs and Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose on public television. My toddler grandchildren have been transfixed by Big Bird and Barney. But should these and other less worthy PBS offerings—viewed on a given day by only about two percent of the American public—receive tax money from Washington?

In his carefully documented book, Laurence Jarvik, cultural studies fellow at the Capital Research Center, provides a critical analysis of the origin and significance of PBS. He identifies its three founders as former CBS News producer Fred Friendly, Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy, and John W. Gardner, who, like Bundy, was a foundation executive and a high federal official in the 1960s.

Jarvik argues that PBS was an instrument of the Great Society, serving as both a messenger and the message of what big government should do to uplift the American people. Like the Kennedy Center and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, PBS promotes the agenda of the liberal political-cultural elite. While other Great Society programs dispense food stamps and cash, PBS dispenses ideas. Money as such may be neutral, but ideas are not—they have moral consequences. And a free society is jeopardized when its government promotes a particular ideological agenda, especially one that impinges on matters of taste and conscience. Jarvik makes a strong case, though bias admittedly is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

In 1961, Jack Kennedy’s FCC chairman, Newton Minow, called commercial TV a “vast wasteland.” In his view, the three profit-driven networks could not provide what was best for the American people. Like Gardner, he argued that “excellence” could be promoted by a cultural elite willing to stand up to the mediocrity encouraged by market forces. What was needed was a non-profit network committed to the public good. The answer, PBS, has received both federal funds and hundreds of millions of dollars from the Ford Foundation, among others. Its major program decisions have been determined by a largely self-anointed club made up of officials of PBS and big foundations, with the tacit though increasingly critical approval of Congress. To an alarming extent, says Jarvik, PBS has been an instrument of liberal Democrats.

As a hybrid government-foundation fiefdom, PBS may have helped to correct some of the banality of Minow’s “vast wasteland.” Certainly it has broadcast fine cultural and educational offerings. But many of its programs have carried a liberal bias. Even its nature specials often take a particular environmentalist slant, without providing countervailing views. Inevitably, PBS became an ideological combatant in the cultural war.

So how did Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose come to be numbered among such PBS miniseries blockbusters as Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (1970), Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980), and Ken Burns’s Civil War (1990)? The anomaly apparently resulted from a fortuitous coming together of Robert Chitester, station manager of WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Allen Wallis, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting member. Both wanted to rebut the PBS showing of John Kenneth Galbraith’s Age of Uncertainty, which Chitester called a socialist, redistributionist, big-government tract.

Wallis convinced Friedman to do the series and Chitester became its producer. The project received only tepid support and no money from PBS, but it won grants from the Scaife, Olin, Reader’s Digest, and other foundations, and after a protracted internal struggle—recounted here in convincing detail—PBS agreed to air Free To Choose. It became a smashing success despite the bad time slot given it by the network.

Documenting the “corrosive effect of federal dollars on the system,” Jarvik concludes that America is not getting its money’s worth from PBS expenditures of $2 billion a year (only 14 percent directly from the federal treasury). If the subsidy were terminated and PBS vanished, the highly profitable Sesame Street and most other programs would be scooped up by other broadcasters. This would end PBS “propaganda,” to use Jarvik’s word, and free up the competition of ideas. The “vast wasteland” would be a vast supermarket unencumbered by government-sponsored ideology.

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