Taking a Multimedia Road to Freedom

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Apr 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Bob Chitester, the public TV producer famous for bringing his friend Milton Friedman's pro-capitalist series "Free to Choose" to PBS in 1980, is living proof that you don't have to be liberal or based on a seacoast to produce quality programs for PBS.

As president and founder of Free to Choose Media (www.freetochoosemedia.org), a nonprofit foundation in Erie, Pa., Chitester runs a multimedia production house that creates documentaries, classroom material featuring ABC's John Stossel and, lately, Internet content that all carry an openly pro-market, libertarian bent.

"The Ultimate Resource," currently running intermittently on the high-definition channel HDNet, is a one-hour documentary that lives up to the foundation's mission statement to explore "the concepts of freedom and wealth creation through expert storytelling and high-quality presentation."

Filmed in such exotic locales as Ghana, Peru and Estonia, it shows how the world's 4 billion poor can lift themselves out of poverty if they are given access to free markets, strong property rights protections and the rule of law. Soon to appear on PBS stations, "The Ultimate Resource" features such inventive thinkers as micro-financier Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. I talked to Chitester by telephone on Wednesday:

Q: “The Ultimate Resource” has a pretty obvious theme or message. What is it and who was it aimed at?
A: Obviously, the target for the program is the world. We began the project with the stated objective that we want to create a program that would speak to every human being on the face of the Earth. Our goal was to reinforce what most individuals believe and feel, which is that they have the capability to achieve some great things -- to achieve a life that is positive and good for them. I think most people in the world feel they can make tomorrow better than today for themselves. What we were trying to do was emphasize and focus on that, and to also point out some of the things that would stand in the way of an individual achieving that outcome.

Q: And what stands in the way?
A: Well, barriers to trade. If there are barriers to trade, people can’t maximize their output. If people have a skill, a skill that is only useful to or of interest to a limited percentage of people in any specific population, then clearly the larger population they can reach, the more likely they are to get the maximum return from their skill. You can only do that, therefore, through free trade. Obviously, globalization is a very positive thing because it expands markets for human endeavors that appeal to only small numbers of people. It is really minorities -- in terms of their skill sets and what they are interested in doing -- who are the greatest beneficiary of globalization in terms of giving them more opportunity.

Q: What makes Free to Choose Media a unique production company?
A: We are unique in that our mission is to advance the ideas of a classical liberal society -- a society based on private property, voluntary association and free markets. We believe that the evidence of the past century or two clearly indicates that those societies that are built on those principles end up being the societies in which the average citizen has a better quality of life, a more fulfilling life, than any other society we’ve yet been able to figure out.

Q: Why did you start Free to Choose Media?
A: It isn’t so much that I started a production house as that I had the good fortune of meeting Milton Friedman and persuading him to undertake, with me, the creation of what became “Free to Choose,” the PBS series that went on the air in 1980. Many people think that the TV series was based on the book; that was not the case. The book would not have existed had we not created the television series. Literally from that point on I have been engaged in any and every activity that I was capable of conceiving of and finding the resources for to advance the ideas that Milton presented in that TV series and book.

Q: In a nutshell, what are your personal politics?
A: In a nutshell, they are very similar to Milton Friedman’s. In an answer to that question he said, “Well, I’m a Republican capital “R” but a libertarian small “l.” I don’t absolutely consistently vote Republican but I would tend to do that. I am fundamentally, though, a libertarian.

Q: Back in 1980 did it take a miracle for a guy from Erie, Pa., to get an openly pro-capitalist series like “Free to Choose” on PBS?


A: No, it didn’t take a miracle. What it took was John Kenneth Galbraith having done a series called “Age of Uncertainty.” In doing that series, he thereby created an environment in which it was just politically not possible for PBS to turn down a series on the other side. There was so much made of the Galbraith series. It did not hurt our situation that the gentleman who introduced me to Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, chancellor of the University of Rochester, was at the very same time chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He shared my view that the Galbraith series demanded a response. As it turned out, there was enough clamor in the nation that PBS do something that they went along. Now they did not give it as favorable a placement as they did Galbraith. Galbraith went into what they then were calling their core schedule, whereas Friedman was put on the air Friday evenings following the “Rukeyser Report” because in PBS’ eyes “Free to Choose” was finance or something like that.

Q: Is PBS more or less hospitable to your politically incorrect ideas about capitalism today than it was in 1980?
A: I would say there is no change. The culture at PBS is still decidedly not interested in the ideas we are trying to put forward. But you have to be a very astute and careful listener or viewer to understand what I mean by that. Bill Moyers may be the exception because to a certain degree he has been certainly fairly direct about his own views. But most of the programming on PBS, like “Frontline,” like “Nova,” etc., will tell you they are neutral and that they are offering all sides. The bottom line is you have to do a really careful analysis to see how in word choice, how in the characterization of stories, etc., that there is a left-of-center orientation. It’s not blatant. I think that is one of the mistakes, by the way, of those who share my view that federal funding of PBS ought to come to a screeching halt. They try to make the case that there is this outrageous, blatant liberal advocacy on PBS. There is none of that. It is much more subtle. I have a real concern over what they do but it is not the same kind of blatant advocacy that some people claim.

Q: You have a two-hour project in the works on Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto. What’s so great about him?
A: Well, Hernando De Soto has spent the last probably 20 years running around the world saying that one of the key factors standing in the way of people advancing themselves is the lack of officially recognized property rights. As he said in his first book, “The Other Path,” which was written as a counter to Peru's Shining Path (communist guerrilla movement), in Peru you have in effect crony capitalism, mercantilism, where most of the people of Peru are just pushed away. They are kept out of the economy. The way they are kept out is that they have no official standing in the society; they have no property rights acknowledged by the government.

But he said if you were to go in the barrios or out in the countryside, the dogs knew where the boundaries were. When you walked from one person’s plot to the another, a different dog would come up to you. But if that individual tried to sell that property, he couldn’t because he had no title to it. All their neighbors knew it was their property. All their neighbors knew that for three generations that family had had it. But they had no official credentials that would allow them to in any way benefit from it. That’s basically what his work has been. He’s been expanding on it and refining it -- and we’re going to document it and share it with the world.