Education Reporting on Public Television

Capturing Education Battles on Television, 1972-1980

“Why is desegregation of schools important to black children?” “Why? Because it is educationally right and because segregation on the basis of race is unconstitutional and immoral.” So declared Ellen Jackson, director of the Freedom House Institute on Schools and Education, in an interview segment played over shots of books, desks, and school posters. On October 1, 1974, two weeks after school opened in Boston on September 12, 1974, Say Brother devoted its hour-long program to the topic of desegregation. WGBH’s program “by, for, and about the black community,” begins with an interpretive mime piece about school busing.41 Then, an opening voiceover, states, “Like everyone else, Say Brother has been caught up in the drama surrounding the schools this year.” Sitting in a chemistry classroom, two students are interviewed by the show’s producer. They appear ambivalent about the process of busing, but are certain that a good education is crucial. Standing on the steps of a high school, Pat Bonner Lyons of the Community Task Force on Education declares that the fears of white parents are “a form of madness, which has been encouraged and perpetrated on us by politicians who’ve used this issue to gain their political strength.” A group of local leaders discuss the problem in the library. And in closing, the show’s producer, Marita Rivero, states, “One of the ugly facts which came to light this past year was the racist nature of this city, do I need to say any more about that?” Still, she is certain that the quest for equal education is vital. AAPB’s collection of Say Brother programs offer insight into the experience of black Bostonians throughout the busing crisis.


Next: Covering Education in the 1980s

Jump to:

Introduction
Spotlight on Education, 1972-1980
Public Television Covers the Busing Crisis, 1974-1979
Educational Topics on Talk Shows
Alternative Education Documentaries
Education Topics on Newsmagazines
Conclusion

Introduction

As the public broadcasting system transitioned from an NET-centric network to one in which CPB, PBS, and the local affiliates vied for control, the question of whether public television should show public affairs programming at all remained open. The Nixon administration in particular did not believe that public television should be in the business of such programming. (For more on public television’s conflict with the Nixon administration, see the exhibit “Gavel-to-Gavel”: The Watergate Scandal and Public Television) After the Watergate hearings brought public television into the national spotlight as never before, local stations could produce news programs confidently. In 1975, The Robert MacNeil Report (later The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and finally, the PBS NewsHour) became public broadcasting’s national newsmagazine. Talk shows such as Woman and Firing Line, were broadcast across the US as well. The AAPB collection has a wealth of content discussing local issues including sex education, alternative education, and teachers’ strikes. This section draws particular attention to the issue of busing in Boston, which was covered at length by WGBH.

Spotlight on Education, 1972-1980

Whereas in the early years of the civil rights movement, groups like the NAACP, SNCC, SCLC, and CORE focused their energy on the de jure segregation in southern states,42 by the mid-1960s and into the 1970s, activists increasingly turned their attention to de facto segregation in the North. The Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg upheld the legality of busing as a tactic to speed up desegregation. As a result “massive resistance to desegregation in the North and especially to school busing as a remedy” became “a key characteristic of this era.43

On June 21, 1974, Federal District Court Judge Arthur Garrity ruled in the case of Morgan v. Hennigan that the Boston School Committee had “intentionally brought about and maintained racial segregation” in their public schools.44 He ordered that beginning that fall, students in 59 of Boston’s 201 schools would be bused to achieve roughly even proportions of black and white students in each school.45 Protests raged all summer, including a riot at a speech by Senator Edward Kennedy three days before the start of school. On September 12, 1974, schools opened, mostly without conflict. Phase I of the plan, however, mandated busing between Roxbury, the heart of Boston’s black population, and the equally segregated South Boston, an enclave for the Irish working class. Outside South Boston High School, crowds attacked buses carrying black students back to Roxbury as they left the school at the end of the day. In the following days, the violence continued in South Boston with fights breaking out in and around the school. After a black motorist was attacked by South Boston residents, violence started in Roxbury, too.46 Soon thereafter, a white student was stabbed by a black student in the high school. South Boston High School was shut down for a month as a result.47 Still, the plan continued. Phase II started the next fall, bringing the whole city, except East Boston, into the busing plan. In September 1977, Phase III created a Department of Implementation.48 By that point, however, many white students had left the school system, either by enrolling in private or parochial schools, or by moving to the suburbs. Throughout this time, images and news clips of the violence in Boston glared on TVs and in newspapers across America.

The years of painful conflict around desegregation, community control, and busing had weakened confidence in American education. At the height of the Great Society in 1966, two-thirds of Americans felt confident about their public school system. By 1980, that number had dropped to one-third. As a result, many parents shifted their focus toward tests, teacher “competencies,” and educational standards. By the mid-1970s, over half the states had implemented standardized exams to test student achievement.49 The focus on quality rather than equality also reflected the flagging confidence in the power of mandated desegregation. The 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley demonstrated the unconstitutionality of “metropolitan busing” – integration between cities and suburbs. Due to years of “white flight” to the suburbs, most urban districts by this time had become majority minority, making intra-city busing pointless.50

Public Television Covers the Busing Crisis, 1974-1979

Throughout the Boston busing crisis, WGBH covered the issue across many of its programs. In the 1970s, WGBH broadcast a series of nightly news programs that focused on “neighborhood, local, and state issues.”51 The first, The Reporters, ran from 1970 to 1973 before it was replaced by Evening Compass, broadcast from 1973 to 1975. During the busing crisis, the audience of Evening Compass grew substantially, allowing WGBH to air the program twice a night during the most fraught days. Compass reporters covered press conferences with city politicians, met with local activists, and conducted interviews with students, parents, and community residents. See, for example, their coverage of the 1974 Racial Imbalance Hearings, a press conference at Boston City Hall during the second week of Phase I desegregation, and a program called A Delicate Balance that looks back on the first six months of busing.

On January 15, 1976, the nightly news program rebranded again to become The Ten O’Clock News, now covering national as well as local issues. Particularly after journalist Christopher Lyndon became an anchor the following year, the show began to develop a reputation for in-depth coverage and high quality reporting.52 Picking up where Evening Compass left off, The Ten O’Clock News covered the first day of school in September 1976 and offered a “Boston School Desegregation View”, which focused on the effects of the policy in South Boston High School and the Joseph Lee School in the neighborhood of Dorchester. In 1976, WGBH paired with WETA to produce a special called “Is School Desegregation Working?”, hosted by Jim Lehrer. The debate, filmed in Washington, D.C., focused on desegregation nationwide and was delivered to affiliates by PBS.

As discussed in the “Featured Program” section, WGBH’s Say Brother also provided frequent reflections on school desegregation and education in general during its run from 1968 to 1982.53 In 1968, Say Brother hosted a panel discussion called “Black Youth and Education”. In April 1974, “The School Issue” covered the upcoming referendum vote on restructuring the Boston School Committee. Host Barbara Barrow discussed the distance between educators and community members and the need for increased communication in the two-part special, “Education, Parts One and Part Two.” Later that year, “Modification of Phase Two: What Does It Really Mean?” explained the next steps of the busing plan. In “Paige Academy: An Alternative Education” and “Bilingual Education”, Say Brother covered two experiments in alternative education. “Another Conversation with the Next Generation” brought together a group of teenagers to discuss race relations in Boston schools. Finally, “Boston School Committee Live Pre-Election Special” showed the candidates for the contested 1981 race. In general, Say Brother’s coverage provided a stronger point of view than was found in self-consciously neutral newsmagazines.

Educational Topics on Talk Shows

In the early 1970s, talk shows such as Firing Line and Woman covered educational topics for a national audience. William F. Buckley Jr.’s talk show had been syndicated for commercial television since its debut in 1966, but in 1971 it moved to public television, produced by South Carolina Educational Television’s Southern Educational Communications Association. Buckley frequently debated educational topics, including a program in 1972 on Sex Education. Woman was a half-hour talk show produced by WNED in Buffalo from 1972-1977 covering issues relevant to women. The show featured episodes on Sex Education, Sex Bias in Education (Part 1 and Part 2), Title IX, and Women’s Studies.

Alternative Education Documentaries

As in the NET years, during the 1970s public television stations aired a number of documentaries on alternative education, giving the viewer a glimpse into schools doing different or unusual things. PBS SoCal produced a special on the Carl Harvey School in Santa Ana, which taught physically challenged students from across the district. Iowa Public Television produced two such alternative education programs, one on the Iowa School for the Deaf, and another on educating gifted children. The station also produced a documentary titled Our Children on teacher development. This type of program remained popular in the following decades.

Education Topics on Newsmagazines

Before newsmagazines became a ubiquitous format in the 1980s, a few vanguard stations got a regular weekly news program up and running in the 1970s. The newly merged WNET began airing The 51st State in 1972, which ran until 1976. The show reported on New York issues such as racial segregation in the Canarsie neighborhood and school system and the conditions in School District 1, where the teachers union was set to battle the neighborhood picks in an upcoming election. In 1976, Louisiana Public Broadcasting's Louisiana: The State We’re In began as a magazine show devoted primarily to state capitol politics, but also covered local news and current events. The show featured legislative debates over Teachers Pay, School Buses, and Sex Education. It also brought attention to issues such as the National Teacher Examination and teachers’ strikes in East Baton Rouge Parish and Jefferson Parish. WNED in Buffalo began Channel 17 Reports, featuring segments on Magnet Schools and Catholic Schools.

One of the few nightly newsmagazines on public television, New Jersey Nightly News, began in 1978. The show, which still is on the air, frequently features educational reporting, including an early feature called “A Closer Look: Education—Graduation Standards”. The New Jersey Network also featured public affairs specials, including a panel discussion on “The State of the Arts in New Jersey” on arts education and a broadcast of the case Smith v. Ricci, argued before the State Supreme Court in 1982 on the rules governing sex education in public schools.

Conclusion

Over the course of the 1970s, faith in the power of American education to become a “passport from poverty,” as Lyndon Johnson famously proclaimed, was waning.54 By the end of the decade, hope and anger about the potentials and risks of mandated integration had shifted toward concern about the quality of education in general. As public affairs shows gained traction on public television, many turned their eye to this problem in the last years of the decade. In the 1980s, this type of coverage would only increase.

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An image of Pat Bonner-Lyons on Say Brother. This 1974 episode focused on school desegregation and the quality of education in Boston.

Courtesy of WGBH

An image of Pat Bonner-Lyons on Say Brother. This 1974 episode focused on school desegregation and the quality of education in Boston.

Courtesy of WGBH

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In this episode of Ten O'Clock News, buses arrived in South Boston with police escort.

Courtesy of WGBH

In this episode of Ten O'Clock News, buses arrived in South Boston with police escort.

Courtesy of WGBH

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WNET's The 51st State anchor reports on School District 1."

Courtesy of Thirteen/WNET

WNET's The 51st State anchor reports on School District 1."

Courtesy of Thirteen/WNET

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