PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

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  • Dan Crawford

    I stopped paying attention to NPR years ago when the bias became blatant and its anti-Christian stance became so pronounced on nearly every one of its programs. These days, National Geographic has taken up NPR’s fascination with the weird and the occult. Both institution have degenerated substantially.

  • tmatt


    I disagree, sharply. NPR still gets under my skin (check out NPR Movies, the podcast that specializes in the small films for the NPR niche and all but ignores family films. Try to find a Narnia feature in the archives. Just try. Then search for “Capote”). But anyone who follows NPR over the last five years knows that the network has made a serious attempt to bring in SOME balance. And the network’s religion coverage — on the NEWS SIDE — is sharp and balanced.

    I know that you said “nearly every one of its programs.” What programs do you think do a GOOD job?

  • jen ochstein

    It’s funny: I just heard a comment the other day from someone that PBS is quite secular in that it never points to a view other than naturalistic explanations for human origins and such. (i.e. “Nature)
    As a journalist, when I get complaints from BOTH sides of an issue that I’ve covered telling me that I was slanted to one side as well as the other side – that usually tells me that I’ve done my job. And it usually tells me that I did a good job trying to be objective.
    It also seems to me that those people who have complaints like the one tmatt wrote about are those who really want THEIR own views to be portrayed more than the other guy’s view. He doesn’t want the other side of coin portrayed AT ALL, it seems, even though including Christianity in documentaries like this is simply a part of telling the story of who these people are.

  • Michael

    While I don’t agree with the criticism that PBS is “too Christian,” it is worthwhile to note the complaints abuot things being “too Christian” came on the heels of allegations that Republicans–lead by social conservatives–were politicizing CPB, and specifically PBS. Those allegations resulted in resignations and support for the belief that there were conservative shenanigans at CPB and PBS.

    Maybe these complaints are a manifestation of those concerns.

  • Dan

    NPR’s purported effort at “balance” is laughable. Last time I listened, Nina Totenberg was covering the Alito hearings and all things related to Roe. They might as well put the president of NARAL on the story.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.”

    The US is 125% Christian? I guess all that evangelizing really works!

  • tmatt


    Funny. As you know, all those evangelical Protestants are also self-identifying Christians. You need a course in logic. Circles inside circles and all of that. ;-)

  • Discman

    I sent the ombudsman some feedback on this yesterday. Here’s the meat of it, which will probably be too easily dismissed as coming from another crazed Evangelical:

    “I am not an avid watcher of PBS programming. I am a Christian, and I learned long ago that TV is not the best place for religious subjects.
    Networks avoided it completely during my childhood (I was born in 1970).

    “In the 1980s, I believe, PBS got all sorts of attention for its broadcast of Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” which, it seemed to me then, opened the floodgates for programming about “religious history.” Such programs probably didn’t offend the viewers who have recently complained about an uptick in “religious” programs on PBS, because those earlier shows always prominently featured “higher critics” and others who discussed the Bible as man-made, as literature, or both. The viewpoint of faith often was missing. Certainly not the faith of many Americans, notably Evangelicals.

    Since then, the Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra fund-raisers have demonstrated where the money is, in terms of PBS programming. These religion-lite lectures are simply ghastly to my way of thinking, and their apparent success (they air repeatedly during fundraising months)speaks loud and clear about what I perceive to be the pseudo-religion of many PBS viewers. If this is the sort of “religious” programming that bothers secular-minded folks, they should rest assured that it’s no balm to Evangelicals such as myself, who find such programs wretched.”

    –I then raised something that truly does anger me about PBS programming: the way my local affiliate moves “America’s Test Kitchen” all over its schedule from week to week! I mean, if people wanna throw a litte fire ‘n’ brimstone at the PBS powers that be, let’s tell ‘em how ticked off we are about their shoddy treatment of the shows about cooking!

    I should add that the ombud’s assistant wrote me back a kind note, encouraging me to contact my affiliate directly with my complaint about “America’s Test Kitchen.”

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Terry, my logic is fine, it’s the use of “another” that implies that the 85-90% is a distinct group separate from the 40%. “A country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 55-50 percent also self-identifying as ‘Christian’” would’ve been fine.

    (Oof, “you need a course in logic” has me flashing back to years of pointless Usenet arguments. Just yesterday I looked up an old newsgroup I used to hang out in, and saw the same old people making the same old arguments about the same old topic, often using the same old sentences. It was like some science fiction story about robots endlessly fighting a war after the people who built them died off.)

  • Libertine

    My guess is that PBS is employing a hedge strategy to ward off criticisms that the publicly funded network leans toward predominantly secular programming. Of course, if the “Christian-themed” shows being aired slant toward the Jim Wallis/Spong spectrum of Christianity, then those criticisms will merely mutate into “PBS is trying to liberalize Christianity.” But I haven’t seen most of the programming, so I can’t really comment about their content. The last “Christian-themed” show I saw was the National Geographic special about crucifixion.

    BTW, quotations around “Christian-themed” are not intended to function as scare quotes. I just wish I could think of a better phrase.

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  • http://www.twoorthree.net seeker

    As a xian, and political conservative, I have enjoyed npr for years, and have noticed their efforts at balance.

    Terry Gross, though still a liberal, often has conservatives on her programs. Of course, she doesn’t have as much rapor with them (Bill O’Reilly walked off), and she gets testy, but at least here guest list has changed.

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