School Inc. Under Attack: Milton Friedman, PBS, and the Quixotic Pursuit of “Balance” in Public Broadcasting

Our departed colleague Andrew Coulson spent the last years of his life producing School Inc., a wonderful and informative documentary about the possibilities of private, choice-based schooling. I highly recommend it. Amazingly, at least to me, PBS agreed to air the documentary, and in April it debuted on PBS stations around the country.

Unsurprisingly, a chorus of critics are angered that PBS would air such a program. Media Matters for America seems to call for the outright censorship of any critique of public education on public television by wondering, “why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education?” Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of private schools, complains that “uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, [and] teachers selling their lessons to students on the Internet,” but “what they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.” Now a petition has been started calling for PBS to air “the other side” of the story by showing the anti-private school film Backpack Full of Cash.

I have nothing against showing the “other side” to Andrew’s series, but we need to put this debate in context. When it comes to PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the “other side” that doesn’t get heard is usually the conservative or libertarian side, and CPB has generally been deeply antagonistic to those ideas. That Ravitch and others are now the ones complaining is at least somewhat ironic.

But I do not want to denigrate their efforts. By its very nature, public broadcasting excludes viewpoints (airtime is finite) and requires citizens to speak up when they think something is unbalanced. But public broadcasting is unbalanced all the time. The Flat Earth Society did not get equal time to refute Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and creationists didn’t get airtime to refute The Ascent of Man.

The true source of bias occurs when certain ideas are labeled either “mainstream” or “extremist.” Extremist ideas don’t deserve airtime, but mainstream ideas do. That lesson was learned in the 70s when Milton Friedman and Bob Chitester fought to put Friedman’s 10-part, pro-free market documentary Free to Choose on PBS. Interestingly, School Inc. was produced by Free to Choose Media and Bob Chitester. Free to Choose Media funds and creates freedom-oriented videos and documentaries, and Bob Chitester has been fighting to put freedom-oriented ideas on PBS for almost five decades.

The fight to put Free to Choose on the air began when W. Allen Wallis, a free-market economist and member of the CPB board, was troubled by PBS’s airing of John Kenneth Galbraith’s 13-hour paean to planned economies and “new socialism” called The Age of Uncertainty. (This story is recounted from my Policy Analysis “If You Love Something, Set it Free: A Case for Defunding Public Broadcasting,” for which Laurence Jarvik’s PBS: Behind the Screen was my primary source.) Galbraith was one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the day (somewhat like Paul Krugman but more extreme), and an avowed proponent of increased government involvement in the economy, from higher taxes to the nationalization of some industries. But his ideas were perceived as “mainstream,” so The Age of Uncertainty aired with almost no “balance.” Critics were given three to five minutes to respond to Galbraith at the end of each episode, which was seen as sufficient balance for PBS–55 minutes for Galbraith; 3-5 minutes for critics.

Appalled by this slightly watered-down state-sponsored support for near-socialist ideas, Wallis put into motion the production of Free to Choose and Bob Chitester took the reins. But it wouldn’t be easy. Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, but, in the words of Wallis, “public broadcasting people regarded Friedman as a fascist, an extreme right-winger.” Galbraith, however, was “a middle-of-the-road person.” In Friedman’s words: “From the point of view of the people who were running PBS, Galbraith’s series was politically correct and mine was incorrect.”

Chitester was asked by PBS executives how he intended to provide “balance” in Friedman’s program. “I don’t intend to have any balance,” he responded, “in light of the thirteen hours given to Galbraith.” Yet Chitester and Friedman decided to address PBS’s concerns by devoting more than half of Friedman’s ten-hour series to critics. The second half of each episode, as well as the entire last episode, features critics challenging Friedman’s ideas.

Even though Friedman skillfully and devastatingly addresses his critics (it’s really the best part of the series), PBS executives could hardly call the series unbalanced. Nevertheless, they still resisted giving the series any more exposure than they thought it deserved. While Galbraith’s series got a choice 9 p.m. weeknight time slot, as part of the core PBS schedule, Free to Choose was relegated to 10 p.m. on Fridays. In New York City, they even showed it opposite the Super Bowl. Friedman and Chitester complained, but complaints from viewers, and the growing popularity of the program, finally pushed PBS to give it a better spot.

Despite “using” the avenue of PBS–and remember that, for many people in 1980, PBS was one of only four networks they could watch–Friedman was always deeply skeptical of government-run media. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman explains why markets are the best protectors of those who wish to espouse unpopular ideas:

The suppliers of paper are as willing to sell it to the Daily Worker as to the Wall Street Journal. In a socialist society, it would not be enough to have the funds. The hypothetical supporter of capitalism would have to persuade a government factory making paper to sell it to him, the government printing press to print his pamphlets, a government post office to distribute them among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk, and so on.

Friedman also reminds us of a time when government-controlled broadcasting had a pronounced effect on the world:

From 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Churchill was not permited to talk over British radio, which was, of course, a government monopoly administered by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Here was a leading citizen of his country, a Member of Parliament, a former cabinet minister, a man who was desperately trying by nearly every device possible to persuade his countrymen to ward off the menace of Hitler’s Germany. He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his position was too “controversial.”

Again, I support the efforts to convince PBS to air “the other side” to Andrew’s views, but I’d be more supportive of abolishing a public broadcasting system that only pretends to be objective. Maybe, when Ravitch and other supporters of government schools are considered “extremist,” they’ll support that too.