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PBS's "Commanding" Conflict of Interest:
Enron & other corporate giants sponsored new globalization series
In the latest example of PBS's inconsistently applied underwriting
guidelines, the network is premiering a six-hour series about the global
economy which was sponsored by major corporations-- including Enron-- that
have a clear interest in the show's content.
Titled "Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy," the series
is based on the eponymous book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. It
has already received a rave review from the Wall Street Journal (3/28/02)
under the headline "PBS Likes Capitalism More Than the Commercial Networks
Do," in which it hailed the series as a "paean to private enterprise."
Corporate funders of "Commanding Heights" include the Electronic Data
Systems Corporation (which bills itself as "the leading global information
technology services company"), BP (formerly British Petroleum, one of the
world's largest oil companies) and FedEx-- all firms with a major stake in
the debate over the future of the global economy.
Enron no longer appears on lists of the show's funders, but the Boston
Globe (1/23/02) has reported that Enron was one of the series' original
underwriters, providing backing that might have been "in the six figures."
Since Enron's scandalous collapse, PBS has downplayed the Enron link,
calling it "a distraction." In January, after more than two years of work
on the series and just three months before its debut, Yergin told the Globe
that "preliminary discussions" had been undertaken to find a replacement
This isn't the first time that PBS has distributed a show with a
funding-related conflict of interest. Nor is it the first time that Yergin
has been involved. Over the years, FAIR has found that PBS scrutinizes the
underwriters of certain documentaries with more vigilance than it does
others. Shows produced or funded by “interest groups” like unions and
public interest activists have been rejected by PBS as compromised by these
connections, while programs funded by corporate or conservative interests
are A-OK. Here are a few examples of that trend:
DISTRIBUTED BY PBS:
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, a 1993 series funded by
PaineWebber, a company with significant oil interests. The series’ main
analyst was Daniel Yergin, a consultant to major oil companies. Almost
every expert featured was a defender of the oil industry.
Living Against the Odds, a 1991 special on risk assessment that asserted,
“We have to stop pointing the finger at industry for every environmental
hazard.” Funded by Chevron, a petrochemical company often criticized for
James Reston: The Man Millions Read, a flattering documentary about the New
York Times’ most famous pundit. The film was funded by and produced “in
association with” the New York Times. The director and producer, Susan
Dryfoos, is part of the Sulzberger family that owns the paper, and is the
daughter of a former Times publisher.
REJECTED BY PBS:
Out At Work, a 1997 film about workplace discrimination against gays and
lesbians. Why? It was partially funded by unions and a lesbian group. PBS
acknowledged that the underwriters had clearly not controlled the program’s
content, and that it was “compelling television responsibly done,” but
still refused to distribute it.
Defending Our Lives, a 1993 Academy Award-winning documentary about
domestic violence. Why? One of the producers was the leader of a battered
women's support group, and PBS felt that gave her a "direct vested interest
in the subject matter of the program."
The Money Lenders, a 1993 film about the World Bank. Why? PBS was concerned
that “Even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a
perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely
According to the "Commanding Heights" trailer-- which, though it doesn't
disclose the show's underwriters, does feature footage of FedEx airplanes--
the show aims to tell "the story of the battle between the power of
governments and the power of the marketplace over which will control the
commanding heights of the world's economies."
“It's unfortunate that public television is presenting viewers with a
report on the struggle over globalization that's been bankrolled by some of
the key players from one side of the debate,” said FAIR’s Rachel Coen.