Tag: PBS

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.

Still Unhappy with PBS for Airing School Inc.

Before it even hit the fiber-optics, defenders of public schooling were agitated that PBS stations would be airing Andrew Coulson’s documentary School Inc., which takes viewers on a ride through time and around the world to learn how innovation happens, and why it happens too rarely in education. Last Friday a new critique was published, this time on the website of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association of educators. In the piece, Loyola University Chicago professor Amy Shuffelton asks, “Why did PBS and its local New York affiliate, WNET, agree to broadcast and distribute such an unbalanced, journalistically questionable series on such a controversial and complicated topic as education?”

Perhaps the answer is that PBS officials thought the series had high-quality content, and discerning viewers could determine for themselves whether they accepted its premise. Writes Shuffelton: “According to WNET’s Specter [Shuffelton does not provide a first name], the second part of the series title, ‘A Personal Journey’ is key to understanding the project. ‘When you read that subtitle, you know that you’re going to get a point of view, and we’re not opposed to presenting different points of view.’”

The documentary certainly is clear that you are getting one person’s perspective. And while I don’t watch a lot of television, PBS or otherwise, it seems unlikely that PBS programs such as Bill Moyer’s Journal or Democracy Now! have been committed to strict, equal time for opposing views. As with public schooling, there is good reason to oppose publicly funded television because it is impossible to represent the views of every taxpayer equally. But PBS exists, and points of view seem to be articulated without having to be balanced out.

Of course, the best way to judge the quality and merits of School Inc. is to view it yourself, which you can do here, or by watching this space for future airings in your market. And you should of course read opposing views like Shuffelton’s, though don’t expect objectivity there, either. For instance, Shuffelton says that Coulson quotes Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson out of context, but does not say how. Worse, she suggests that Coulson believes discrimination in government funding is a solution to religious conflicts in education:

Coulson does consider the possibility of civic discord in the last ten minutes of the series, but his answers are not convincing. School Inc. turns to Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer’s dissent in the case Zelman v Simmons-Harris, which upheld an Ohio voucher program. Breyer worried that publicly financed voucher programs, which funnel federal funds to religious schools, raise the possibility of religiously based social conflict.

Coulson’s response should raise concern for anyone worried about First Amendment rights. To show that social conflict is unlikely to follow, he uses the example of a voucher program proposed in New Orleans. One of the schools eager to participate was a Muslim school. When Louisianans got wind of this, controversy followed. So the Muslim school dropped out. In Coulson’s eyes, the problem was thereby solved.

Wait, I found myself thinking as I watched, that’s discrimination, not a defense of First Amendment rights. I expected Coulson to explain why it was not, but the series moved on to clips of jazz performances, which, according to Coulson, demonstrate Americans’ ability to get along.

This is just incorrect. For one thing, Coulson devotes nearly half of the final episode to social conflict, choice, and equality. And far from condoning exclusion of the Muslim school, he explains that a fundamental problem with vouchers is that while they create more freedom and equality than majority-rules public schools, they can still unjustly compel people to furnish funds for teachings they oppose, opening choice up for government discrimination.

The solution, Coulson suggests, are tax credits for people who choose to donate to groups that award scholarships. Want to give to a group providing scholarships for Montessori students? Go ahead! Catholic schools? Sure! Muslim institutions? Absolutely! This maximizes freedom for both families and funders, and minimizes incentives to legally exclude groups.

I think there is a huge amount of value to be found in School Inc., but others can certainly disagree. What they should not try to do is squelch the documentary, or misrepresent what it says. Oh, and if they want to learn even more about Andrew and debate his ideas, they can check out this new book. After all, the more open discussion we have, the better!

Friday Links

  • “PBS used to ask, ‘If not PBS, then who?’ The answer now is: HBO, Bravo, Discovery, History, History International, Science, Planet Green, Sundance, Military, C-SPAN 1/2/3 and many more.”
  • “The fiscal problem that is destroying U.S. economic confidence is not the fiscal balance, however. It is the level of government expenditures relative to GDP.”
  • “The Pentagon’s first cyber security strategy… builds on national hysteria about threats to cybersecurity, the latest bogeyman to justify our bloated national security state.”
  • How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and, on hearing sounds indicative of things moving, forcibly enter and search for evidence of unlawful activity?”
  • National debt is driving the U.S. toward a double-dip recession

Your Tax Dollars at Work (2)

Public television stations in Washington and elsewhere will be broadcasting live the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton for several hours on Friday, April 29. And if you need more background on the happy couple, they will also broadcast a documentary, “William and Kate: The Royal Wedding,” in the weeks leading up to the big day.

Now some churlish republicans might say that our ancestors fought and died just so we didn’t have to pay attention to the comings and goings of royalty. But I say it’s just this sort of live, breaking-news, current affairs coverage for which we need public broadcasting. Without PBS, where could Americans watch the handsome young prince take the beautiful commoner to be his wife? I mean, other than ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, TLC, BBC America, and YouTube?

As they used to say, If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?

‘We’re All In This Together’

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Given that Planned Parenthood’s online donations have shot up over the last two months, is Mike Pence (R-Ind.) correct to say it could – and should – operate without taxpayer funds?

My response:

Given that many Americans believe that abortion is murder, of course Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading abortion provider, should not be publicly funded. (And please don’t say that no taxpayer funds go for abortions: money is fungible.)

Democrats think that almost everything should be publicly funded – education, health care, retirement, the arts. What’s next? News? Entertainment? Oh, I forgot: NPR and PBS. But only that programming that meets their exacting standards. FOX News? Faget about it! Where you from? Kansas? And they wonder why there’s a Tea Party.

Tuesday Links

  • Still think the War on Drugs is a good idea, or that it’s working? Decreases in cocaine production in Colombia have been almost fully offset by increases in Peru and Bolivia.
  • Why is nobody talking about the right of Wisconsin taxpayers to not deal with unions?
  • “If you’re the rare bird who favors limited government at home and abroad, you can hardly expect good news from a poll of this generation’s Tracy Flicks.” (Maybe not.)
  • NPR and PBS are using taxpayer dollars to lobby for… more taxpayer dollars. But that’s hardly a new game in Washington.
  • Afghanistan: nation-building on crack.
  • Saying no to a no-fly zone over Libya should be a no-brainer:


Privatizing Public Broadcasting

I appeared on WFPL, the NPR affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky, today to argue for ending the federal funding for NPR and PBS. Sort of like Daniel in the lion’s den. But since I survived, and since NPR stations are using all their government dollars to mount a vigorous radio and internet campaign to get more government dollars, I thought I would pull together some of my writings on the topic.

You should shortly be able to listen to the show here. I made the point that we have a $1.5 trillion deficit, and every spending program has to be on the table. But more importantly, as I said in my article on the top ten reasons to privatize public broadcasting,

And the number one reason to privatize public broadcasting is:

1. The separation of news and state. We wouldn’t want the federal government to publish a national newspaper. Why should we have a government television network and a government radio network? If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that Americans watch. When government brings us the news—with all the inevitable bias and spin—the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. It’s time for that to stop.

Here’s my testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee – four public broadcasting CEOs and me – which is actually more balanced than most congressional hearings. This includes data on public broadcasting demographics that I cited on the air.

Here’s the Cato Handbook for Policymakers chapter on “Cultural Agencies.”

Here’s my speech, “The Separation of Art and State,” delivered at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts.

Read my reflections on the scandals in public broadcasting here.