Why Is PBS Airing Right-Wing-Sponsored School Privatization Propaganda?

Since Naked Capitalism readers regularly complain about the neoliberal/neocon viewpoint of NPR, this article will hardly come as a surprise. But it is puzzling to see it fail to mention other cases where right wing funders influenced its programming, such as when the Koch Brothers got PBS to yank the airing of “Citizen Koch”.

By Brett Robertson. Originally published at Media Matters; cross posted from Alternet

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have pushed for an expansion of privatized school choice programs in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, particularly in the form of private school vouchers. Now a propagandistic three-part documentary series called School Inc. will help DeVos in her efforts to gain public support for expanded private school choice options. The series has already aired on PBS stations in some markets and will be shown on more this month.

majority of people across the partisan spectrum oppose private school vouchers, programs that redirect public education money to pay for private school tuition. Vouchers are problematic for many reasons, including their history of allowing for discrimination against LGBTQ, disabled, and special education students, their impact on reducing public education funding, and their ineffectiveness in boosting academic achievement.

Despite these problems, private school vouchers are a long-standing priority of the corporations and right-wing funders backing the education privatization movement. The late Andrew Coulson, long-time head of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, was the driving force behind School Inc. The Cato Institute is a right-wing, libertarian think-tank that calls for the elimination of public schools in support of greater “educational freedom” to choose from a free market of privately run schools.

In addition to School Inc.’s roots in the radical, libertarian Cato Institute, education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch found that the film was funded by a number of arch-conservative foundations with ties to the “dark money ATM” DonorsTrust and the Ayn Rand Institute. Ravitch has prescreened School Inc. and provided this scathing review to The Washington Post:

This program is paid propaganda. It does not search for the truth. It does not present opposing points of view. It is an advertisement for the demolition of public education and for an unregulated free market in education. PBS might have aired a program that debates these issues, but “School Inc.” does not.

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? PBS responded in part with a statement to the Post, saying, “PBS and local member stations aim to offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue on important topics affecting local communities.”

However, as Ravitch notes, when a documentary fails to objectively present information about a topic that may not be well understood by the general public, the result is unlikely to “promote civic dialogue.” And when major media outlets uncritically provide a platform to right-wing ideologues, they further misinform and polarize the debate around important issues such as public education.

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  1. MDBill

    Not to defend PBS, and really just blue-skying here, but perhaps whatever remains of their government funding is in jeopardy if they don’t comply with the forces in power? Or perhaps they’re being somewhat handsomely rewarded for airing it?

    One of my local NPR outlets now has nearly as many and as frequent advertisements as the worst local commercial stations.

    1. Loblolly

      They have been beholden to corporate interests for years. My personal disillusionment began when they came out against Low Power FM radio and took the official line of the National Association of Broadcasters. An anti-competitive stance against independant community radio based on deceitful concerns about interference and other technical issues. They said that well regulated low power FM stations would ruin the advanced digital services they were just about to roll out….. ten years ago.

    1. Benedict@Large

      Why are people so damned afraid to use the word fascism whenever corporation succeed in moving public monies into the support of private corporations. That little word, applied frequently but properly to the many instances of this would go a long way to educating the public and ending the problem. PBS for example could name a half hour of its nightly news programming the Fascist Evening News.

  2. sierra7

    Just my opinion: Having watched NPR for decades that media went into the abyss during the march to the “First Persian Gulf War” during Bush 1 presidency. I was very dismayed watching the generals on PBS and the big screen maps listening to their incredible sanitized verbosity about the “precision munitions” used and the supposed “minimized collateral damages”.
    Yes our congress has been squeezing PBS for those same late decades in funding. Unless there is a great “street movement” to “save” PBS and return it to it’s primary mission it will go the way of the rest of the media……further into the government steno-graphical hole. I only use PBS for their Masterpiece Theatre and a few other no-news programs. I will probably record and watch this program (until my stomach tells me not) at least to see what the “enemy” has in store for us. It is unfortunate that we as a country have not rebelled more against this insidious degradation of funding for public schools; it is indicative and representative of how we are so susceptible to propaganda…ie…..ALL taxes are bad. Therefore……………Sad, true, and inevitably destructive to the soul of our society.

    1. Knot Galt

      I worked as a consultant in a related endeavor for a local PBS station at the time Downton Abbey had provided the agency with an uptick in interest and new sources of funding. Many of the old timers there openly lamented to me the change in broadcasting values that were being implemented by the captured management class. “Not all money has the same color”, was how it was referred to.

      Also, there was a ‘toxic race’ to obtain funding between the radio division and TV division. It became an environment of chasing the same limited funding that boiled down “to keeping one’s job”. Thus, the station appeared to be at the beck and call of a few corporate sponsors who oversaw the content of what was shared with the public. Thus, the content was tightly controlled through influence of just a few old-moneyed “local families”. IMO, it was a corporate sponsored soft censorship environment that tended to degrade the ever-dwindling public-minded esprit de corps that did exist at the time.

      Again, IMO, is a prime example of a captured agency that people still blithely follow through an old sense of trust. Having this insight is one of the things that worries me. Is this how you manufacture sheeple?

      1. Jake Mudrosti

        … a captured agency that people still blithely follow through an old sense of trust. Having this insight is one of the things that worries me. Is this how you manufacture sheeple?

        I would answer yes. Exhibit A is the shift in content of PBS’ flagship NOVA series, during the ’90s and ’00s, to include 2003’s “Battle of the X Planes.” This episode (refer to their official PBS companion webpage, or to IMDb or to YouTube uploads) surely goes a long way toward explaining the entrenchment of the current F-35 fighter funding.

  3. Sluggeaux

    This is important reporting — do follow the link and read what the brilliant Diane Ravitch has to say about PBS broadcasting this one-sided privatization propaganda.

    I’m currently reading Joan Didion’s 2003 reflection Where I Was From, which is a scathing indictment of the mythology of libertarianism in its heartland, Reagan-ite California. Reagan peddled the lie that California was self-made, when in fact from the beginning the state was founded on land grabs, hydraulic strip-mining, railroad eminent domain, water-grabs, and blue-sky aerospace projects — all funded by grants from the sovereign.

    The “privatization” of the commons is nothing but a scam. The “privatization” of PBS into a propaganda arm for these corrupt and self-serving hucksters should come as no surprise.

  4. Divadab

    Political appointees to senior management positions are the direct cause. Republicans have hated NPR for years and used the Bush administration to appoint operatives to wreck it from within. The same process has reduced the CBC to a shell of its former self thanks to the depredations of corporatist evangelicals in the conservative Harper (he of plastic hair and cement mind) administration.

    The only solution is to cancel your cable and quit watching teevee. It’s zombie food.

    1. neo-realist

      I’ve read comments from people they’ve talked to at NPR who have said that it does the programming slant it does because it would lose the big donors if it didn’t.

        1. Sluggeaux

          The comparison of the CPB to the DNC is most apt!

          We happy slaves don’t want to be whipped by the Master, now do we? We should be grateful that the government gave his daddy this land for us to work!

    2. Harry Cording

      I cancelled cable TV 3 yrs ago, highly recommended! On a Roku device you can stream lots of free and commercial free programming, no DVR needed. 24/7,just press the button and watch.
      That said PBS, or what’s left of it has become corporatized and the programming IF you can even find it often requires a “PBS Passport” aka fees. But the worse part of PBS on Roku is the absolutely baffling interface. Good luck finding what you might want to see! So adios PBS. I stopped donating to them yrs ago when they didn’t send the thank you gift and told me well, it’s not guaranteed. OK, neither is my money, rentiers. :-)
      Surely the Corporate Blue Dems donate plenty even now….and remain enthralled.

      And get thsi message out to the Dems, because…Snopes,

      Y’all can breathe a sigh of relief now. (sarc)

  5. Kris Alman

    You can stream the three part series through PBS, but only with the NMPBS Passport. http://www.pbs.org/video/2365967821/

    This video is only available in NMPBS Passport.

    NMPBS Passport is an additional member benefit that provides extended access to quality PBS streaming video.NMPBS Passport is an additional member benefit that provides extended access to quality PBS streaming video. Learn More.

  6. Michael Fiorillo

    The NPR affiliate in New York City, WNYC, has been shilling for so-called education reform for years, a broadcast platform for the Gates and Broad (rhymes with “Toad”) Foundations.

    When Bloomberg was mayor, WNYC was the official broadcaster of school privatization ,faithfully propagating every so-called reform trope – the need to run schools like a business, teachers and their unions as the source of “failing schools,” the “failing schools” trope itself, massive testing used to mine student data and punish urban public schools, etc. – which we are now seeing expanded and accelerated under De Vos.

    For those who haven’t been following the hostile takeover of public education, note that so-called education reform is the last bit of bi-partisan consensus you’ll find; both parties are up to their nostrils in it, though the “progressives” who support it shed crocodile tears over De Vos’ voucher plans. They’ll cash her larger checks for charter schools, though.

    This broadcast, typical of PBS’s/NPR’s egregious coverage of education for years, is nothing new on their part.

    1. kimsarah

      They immerse you in minutae to prevent you from realizing their objective is really simple.

  7. Anon

    PBS local has had this view for a long time. CA elites are supporters of school privatization. Local dumped the art, cooking etc channel and has a mediocre channel that runs corporatist bs all day. The channels run military propaganda, animal shows, etc rejects from old cable channels. There is hardly ever a human being on the children’s programming (dancing insipid, vapid vividly colored distorted animals) The programming is perverse.. little cartoon animals warning other cartoon animals not to favors for others as you will be indebted (obligated to go into a haunted house on command.. be afraid, little Sally, be afraid)

    It is for the best that the tv is rarely on and the PBS channels are blocked.

  8. Bob Stapp

    I used to listen to NPR while driving but found myself yelling at the radio so often that I turned it off. I find driving in silence is much more conducive to my mental health.

    I know a lot of people who still listen to NPR faithfully thinking, mistakenly, that they’re getting well-researched, objective news. Yes, it still has that veneer which only makes what’s really being peddled more insidious.

    The entertainment programs are generally good (e.g. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and Radio Lab) but NPR news itself – including Marketplace – is shot through with carefully crafted b.s. Then they try to make you think they’re world class by airing BBC World. BBC, unfortunately, is just as loaded with b.s. as NPR, only when the news is delivered with an upper-class British accent, it tends to mask the hidden reality.

  9. Fudd E Duddy

    ‘Taint all that new. Back in the 80s they were sucking up to the Reaganites with mutiple hours of Milton Friedman explaining his own economic brilliance, and Bill Buckley raising his eyebrows in smarmy East coast elite superiority.

  10. George Phillies

    “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?”

    Because it tries to represent the public, including the parts of the public that don’t agree with you about schools?

    1. akz

      It’s nothing more than legalized graft/embezzlement. This isn’t a disagreement over schools, this a disagreement over turning the whole country in to the Pendergast machine.

    2. Anon

      Actually, it has little to do with representing the “public”. It has everything to do with the Gates Foundation (a major contributor) and espousing the unproven “educational insight” of the Harvard drop-out, Bill Gates.

      1. Jacob

        A likely reason that the Gates Foundation is involved in school privatization issues is a consequence of Bill Gates’s marriage to a Catholic. The Catholic church owns the largest system of private schools in the U.S. and has been aggressively seeking taxpayer funding for its schools for many decades. Any rulings that favor private and/or charter schools will play right into the hands of the Catholic church. Jeb Bush, who owns charter schools, also married a Catholic and, like Bill Gates, was required to convert to Catholicism. A good book on this subject is “The Attack Upon the American Secular School”, which was published in 1951. Its author shows evidence that the church has conditioned Catholics to view secular schools as evil. Charter schools, vouchers and other means of subsidizing private schools provide a means of getting around laws and Supreme Court decisions which were intended to prevent public funding of private schools.

        1. LifelongLib

          FWIW I married a Catholic, and since I’m not one (nor even a Christian) I had to agree to raise my children as Catholics for my future wife and I to be married in the Church. I was not however required to convert, and haven’t.

  11. Crazy Horse

    The US national propaganda arms of the Deep State— the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, and NPR all operate under the principle that any fiction told frequently enough will eventually become accepted as fact. We’ve reached the point where that tactic is breaking down, and increasingly the public adopts the rational approach of believing that anything they promulgate is a lie until proven otherwise.

    The Russian state takes a quite different approach with it’s propaganda news organization RT (Russia Today). They produce programs that contain more depth of analysis and have the ring of truth. They must be far better at the propaganda game than the Americans. Pretty clever of them to throw the American election by using WikiLeaks to disperse factual information about how the nomination process operated within the Democrat party and denied the people their choice of candidate. And I’m sure they were behind the revelations that Hillary Clinton stole classified information and placed it on her home computer for any foreign analyst to see at their leisure. (AKA treason)

    At this point they must be thinking about the old proverb, “Be Careful What You Wish For” I’m sure the hope for a merger between Exon/Mobile and Rosneft sent visions of dancing $$$$ through the minds of Vlad and the other Russian oligarchs at the time, but they must be having second thoughts about having to deal with a bumblehead President who can’t maintain a thought train that has more than 140 characters in it rather than the sociopathic grifter they would have had to deal with if Clinton had triumphed.

  12. seabos84

    I’ve been skimming Ravitch’s blog for several years. I’m a high school teacher in Seattle for over 10 years, I’m not in NYC. I trust what Mr. Fiorilllo says on all points.

    Some years ago I came to the conclusion that this NeoLib b.s. blame on education from the Arne Duncan – Rahm crowd was just the oligarchs finding employment for the household. 100 or 150 years ago, if you were not the eldest son of a British aristocrat or a Southern planter, you joined the military of the clergy or the government. In today’s era, what if you don’t have the chops to fast track at Goldman or Exxon or Boeing … ?

    Well – there is some 600 or 800 BILLION dollar a year spend on education, and, if you go after the 1/4+ of the schools in poor districts, districts who won’t have the fancy SAT – TestDuJour – test scores – ta da!! Scads of 6 figure a year jobs being edu-CON$, just get some lame ass degree in “Educational Leadership” at some name university!

    As in any social movement con where people are good at the con, there are the truly venal at the top pulling the strings, there is a horde of aspirants to the venal class, and there are hordes and hordes of dupes paying top money to get into the tent for the lazer show.


    1. Anon

      An example of this has occurred in the LA school district. A local charter school “chief” responsible for ~4000 students has a salary of $450,000/year. The Superintendent of the whole LA unified school district (100’s of thousand students) has a salary of ~$300,000. Why? Charter schools have no broad, public oversight. (It was LATimes reporting that brought this to light.)

      The real value to charter school operators is that the school buildings (originally bought with public funds) become the property of the charter school incorporation. (Property in LA is now priceless.)

      The charter school push is not about educational improvements; it’s about legalized grifting.

      1. Dirk77

        I wondered about that. If you know of any studies about how former public school land is transferred, I’d like to read it. Speaking of LA, the former SoCal PBS station, KCET, is now independent.

  13. James McFadden

    Is NPR changing its name from National Petroleum Radio to National Privatization Radio?

  14. kimsarah

    In addition to legalized grifting as Anon points out, keep in mind there is also the segregation element to charter schools. This gives the elite Dems and Republicans an end-around to integrated schools. Hard to believe this is alive and well some 63 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.

  15. bronco

    Why use the term “right-wing” ? The is only one wing. Political parties are more like tentacles than wings

  16. Paul Hirshman

    What’s going on in public education is no different from what has been and is going on in medical care, transportation, and housing: public funds (tax dollars) are being returned to taxpayers via vouchers and reduced tax rates, which are then spent on the private provision of these services, leaving the poor with public services that are low quality, and getting lower by the day. Public hospitals, public schools, public roads, are all being starved for money by “austerity” budgets, except for interest payments on public debt and military/industrial matters. (Social security and Medicare will be the last part of our public sphere to get the ax.)

    The result is a multi-tiered system of essential services–healthcare, education, physical movement, shelter. The more moolah one has, the better the service one can get. (Private schools, fancy concierge medical care, private planes, better housing [mortgage deduction], and 401k in place of social security).

    We are going through the systematic pilfering of the public sphere, by nominally elected officials who function as the mechanism of austerity in the service of Wealth.

    As the middle class disappears, so does the public sphere that in the past “reproduced” the conditions of its continued existence.

    Our political life is pretty much the weird combination of the looting of the public sphere by elected officials who use a nominally democratic and egalitarian political culture as cover of this pilfering.

    PBS is just one part of the corruption. I guess people have a hard time seeing the pattern because acknowledging it means understanding that our government is our class enemy–and that’s a hard sell in Amerika.

  17. Denis Drew

    Berkeley sociology professor Martin Sanchez-Jankowski discovered while spending nine years at street level in five New York and Los Angeles poverty stricken neighborhoods that ghetto schools fail because so many students — and faculty! — see nothing sufficiently remunerative waiting for them in the US labor market when they graduate to make it worth making any serious effort now.

    Well paid Chicago Teachers Union teachers as we well know do not fit that description. You get why you pay for.

    I fail to see how students in poor, crime ridden neighborhoods are going to be elevate by an influx of lower paid, higher turnover teachers whose charter management is motivated by profit. They won’t get what we don’t pay for.



  18. John Beech

    I fail to understand the problem with broadcasting something someone else disagrees with. After all, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Or is it you object to opposing viewpoints being aired? This seems hypocritical to me because either we have free speech, or we don’t, but either way . . . quit bellyaching.

    1. Elizabeth Burton

      The privatization of public educations hasn’t been an “opposing view” since Reagan paid to have a “study” done that reported our public schools were a disaster. School, Inc. is corporate propaganda, period; and NPR has done nothing to provide any “opposing view” to the well-funded PR campaign that insists our public schools are abysmal failures because of teacher’s unions.

      It’s not a case of “someone else” disagreeing. It’s a case of that disagreement never receiving anyexposure on NPR or in the corporate media.

  19. Waking Up

    PBS – “Public” Broadcasting System, airs a three part documentary promoting “private” educational systems over “public” educational systems. That isn’t about “free speech”, it’s propaganda. If PBS wants to promote private education, healthcare, etc., then they should change the name to Private Broadcasting System instead of giving the illusion they are interested in the public at large.

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