PBS: Behind the Screen by Laurence Jarvik

An Excellent Exposé of Politically Correct PBS

Prima Publishing • 1997 • 362 pages • $25.00

Dr. Peterson, adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation, is the Distinguished Lundy Emeritus Professor of Business Philosophy at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina.

“If PBS won’t do it, who will?”

Clever PBS slogan all right, but as to the part about “who will?”—how about the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, A&E, and other upscale, if for-profit, TV channels? Recall, PBS stands for Public—repeat, Public, which means, translated, government-supported—Broadcasting System, a 1,000-station radio and TV network of news, instruction, and entertainment.

Currently PBS is the recipient of much sought-after federal funding to the tune of some 14 percent of its estimated $2 billion budget, or about $280 million, while garnering but two percent of the U.S. audience. Viewer, listener, foundation, and corporate support along with some state and community funding cover the rest of the budget.

One rub with government funding, says Laurence Jarvik, then of the Capital Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, is its liberal ideology, an ideology that permeates its programs.

A related rub is its forcing legions of nonviewers and nonlisteners of PBS, who happen to be taxpayers, to fund something not of their choice. These trapped forgotten men and women prefer to watch football, baseball, basketball, sitcoms, movie reruns, local and national news, and the like on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox-affiliated TV stations, yet they must pay up nonetheless. Jarvik also charges wasteful redundancy in the 300-station PBS TV network. (I attest the charge: As a D.C. resident I easily tune in either PBS Channel 26 in D.C. or PBS Channel 22 in Baltimore.)

Jarvik concedes the many quality shows presented by PBS, including “Nova,” “The Civil War,” and “Masterpiece Theater,” with its own unforgettable “Upstairs, Downstairs” series. He is also struck by William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series for their conservatism/libertarianism.

But he charges that “Firing Line” represents “the triumph of tokenism” and all manner of subtle and unsubtle putdowns of host Bill Buckley and his producers. And he recounts the trials and tribulations of getting “Free to Choose” on the air. President Gerald Ford appointed conservative economist W. Allen Wallis as PBS board chairman. Wallis quit after a year, “disgusted” at the PBS lack of balance—its liberal ideology. For example, well before “Free to Choose,” PBS staged liberal John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Age of Uncertainty” TV series, with host Galbraith ever calling for state interventions as solutions of national economic problems such as high unemployment. Galbraith touted Keynesian fiscal measures and other central planning ideas. Natch.

Friedman’s name, when it came up, was anathema to PBS executives. They rejected his laissez-faire policies, his seeing government as the problem and not the solution. Wallis says PBS viewed Friedman as “a fascist, an extreme right-winger and didn’t want anything to do with him.” That would’ve been the end of the story were it not for a fluke: a conservative/libertarian PBS station manager of WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a gifted fund-raiser, Robert Chitester.

Chitester had also found the Galbraith series statist and one-sided. He drove over to the nearby University of Rochester campus to lunch with its renowned chancellor, the self-same W. Allen Wallis. Chitester asked Wallis to name someone to rebut Galbraith. Wallis suggested Friedman. Chitester agreed and raised the necessary seed money. Friedman was at first reluctant, but wife Rose helped persuade him. So was born an amazing counter-Galbraithian PBS TV series, Friedman’s “Free to Choose,” still available on videotape. The rest, as is said, is history.

Concludes Laurence Jarvik in this excellent exposé of politically correct PBS: “If one truly values freedom, especially freedom of speech, one must honestly recognize that a free marketplace of ideas cannot possibly exist in an intellectual and administrative environment hostile to the very concept of the free market itself.”