Spotlight: Public Television Maverick


There are probably few readers of REASON who did not watch some of or at least hear about Milton Friedman's Free to Choose series on PBS. The importance and repercussions of the series may not yet be fully perceived. One might suppose the mastermind behind the series to be a long-time advocate of free-market economics, a dedicated conservative, or an enlightened corporate public-relations man. Suppose again.

It is Robert Chitester, president of WQLN in Erie, Pennsylvania; once a McGovern Democrat; but before all else an artist—a sculptor, a musician, and a writer with a master's degree in radio and television. He founded WQLN himself in 1966 with the intention of ultimately producing material for more than local consumption.

Until a few months before he initiated Free to Choose, Chitester was not familiar with Milton Friedman. But he had already undergone something of a political conversion. It probably started back in his junior year of high school, says Chitester. He had worked to gain the position of best musician in his school in order to win a place in a statewide event. When it was time to send a student, Chitester says, "I was confronted by a teacher who announced that we were going to decide who was going to the event by vote. They voted and sent somebody else." It was Chitester's rude awakening to a system that studiously avoids rewarding merit.

The seeds of dissatisfaction grew until "about four and a half years ago…it suddenly struck me—economic freedom had to exist, or the rest of the freedoms could not. As soon as that became obvious,…it opened the whole world to me. It kind of settled me philosophically in a way that I had never been before. Before, I could commit myself to individual causes with great energy—but I never had a framework within which to be able to sort out issues and to judge them…other than intuition." That insight, says Chitester, convinced him to take up free-market economics as his banner.

It's not going over too well with a number of liberal groups. A spokesman for the Ralph Nader-affiliated Committee for Broadcasting has condemned Chitester's proposal to allow funding of public television shows by the well-heeled alcohol and tobacco industries in order to sever all funding ties with the federal government. It would be a "Mein Kampf…for the conversion of a public broadcasting station into the personal propaganda machine of the station manager," charged the Committee for Broadcasting.

The object of the criticism is pleased that he is being targeted by such groups. "We must be having an impact, or else they'd pay us no heed," he says. "For the first time in a decade, someone is producing some programs that present counter points and views, and the wailing and screaming for a free and open press has turned to a wailing and screaming of, 'How can this individual assume to quote personal philosophy?'"

Chitester runs two corporations. One is the local public television station (funded in part from federal coffers), and the other is Public Communications, Inc., a production company put together by Chitester to come up with new radio and television shows. Some of the programs that he carries on the local station cause him such "great anguish," he says, that he was driven to produce his own shows. In addition to Free to Choose, Chitester has engineered Economically Speaking, a free-market-oriented panel series, and "The War Called Peace," presenting the views of foreign policy analysts about the Soviet threat to US security.

Not all of Chitester's productions will be explicitly free-market or libertarian, although he says they will be geared to stir the viewer's thoughts in that direction. Projects in the works include a special on tuba music and a presentation based on Richard Dawkin's book, The Selfish Gene, that examines the biological function of self-interest and competition.

One of the most fascinating of Chitester's projects is tentatively scheduled for October. "The Federal Budget Revue, or the Six Hundred Billion Dollar Misunderstanding" is a satiric musical extravaganza written, produced, and directed by the comedian and advertising executive Stan Freberg. The show, costing over a million dollars, is a comedic exposé of the federal budget. Consultants to Freberg included economists Walter Williams and Roger Leroy Miller. Freberg spent time with Milton Friedman and saw the entire Free to Choose series before starting the project.

The idea for the show was the result of a conversation with Charles Koch, a businessman and funder of free-market causes, and George Pearson, the administrator of Koch's contributions to such causes. Pearson, troubled by the lack of media coverage of the federal budget, asked Chitester why he didn't do something on it. Chitester answered, "What do you want me to do, George? Do you want me to get Woody Allen to host the show?" The three laughed, but the idea took hold.

In spite of his friendship with Koch, Chitester has reservations about the Koch-funded Cato Institute. When asked if he considers himself a libertarian, Chitester replied: "I feel very comfortable with the term libertarian except as it relates to Cato." He explains that he once attended a Cato Institute seminar and was disturbed when he could not elicit discussion of his questions concerning the view of US-USSR relations presented at the seminar. While Chitester denies that he is a "hawk," he is more concerned about Soviet intentions than the Cato group is. What really disturbed him, however, was their "being not open to full and open discussion of ideas."

In the future, we can look forward to a Chitester production concerning ecology, written and hosted by William Tucker, author of the award-winning Harper's article, "Environmentalism and the Leisure Class" (Dec. 1977). He is also working on a series of shows about Russian émigrés and a program comparing Taiwan to Sweden. One of his most ambitious ideas is a 26-show series based on Adam Ulam's Stalin, which he hopes to do with the care and artistry of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Chitester already deserves a place in some yet-to-be-established "libertarian hall of fame" for Free to Choose, but it is not likely to be his best and most assuredly not his last. The man is an artist with a dedication to civil as well as economic liberties. Judging from his enthusiasm and his track record, the words of the old showman seem particularly appropriate: "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.