This is a guest post by Amanda Reichenbach about a new American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) collection covering education reporting on public television. The AAPB is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Boston public broadcaster WGBH. Reichenbach worked on the release while interning last summer at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. The previous summer, in an internship with the Library’s Junior Fellows Program, she worked with newly digitized material related to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, made available online last year by the AAPB. Reichenbach has a B.A. in history from Yale University and teaches history at the Groton School in Massachusetts.
Last month, I contributed to a roundtable at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) encouraging historians to use public broadcasting archives in their research. I attempted to show why broadcasts are useful to the historian in a different way than, say, newspapers or even commercial television. It seems to me, for example, that watching the Watergate hearings — the subject of my 2017 Library of Congress internship — draws the researcher into the drama that kept Americans glued to their televisions in summer 1973 more powerfully than simply reading the transcripts can do.
So why use public television archives to tell a story about education, the subject of my most recent internship? What special angle do these broadcasts offer? Three snapshots stand out to me, illustrating why I believe the videos in the exhibit have so much to offer historians.
Public Television and Student Activist Groups
In the early years of public television, documentary producers had special access to groups like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) thanks to a reputation for progressive coverage; student groups often blocked commercial networks from filming their meetings. “NET was the only network organization offered unrestricted access to the strategy meetings of these groups, giving NET an edge in its coverage of the student movement,” recounted historian Carolyn Brooks, referring to National Educational Television, an early attempt at a public television network, which operated from 1953 to 1972. This access resulted in a slew of fascinating films documenting campus unrest in the final years of the 1960s. One documentary, “Diary of a Student Revolution,” was filmed at the University of Connecticut in December 1968 during a wave of student protests surrounding on-campus recruiting by military contractors. One crew followed the UConn branch of SDS, while another monitored the president of the university, Homer D. Babbidge Jr. In the final cut, the viewer is a fly on two rather different walls, witnessing reactions to events on both sides of the battle simultaneously. Such compelling cinema was made possible by the implicit trust the student groups had for public television producers. Listen to a clip below.
Public Television to Build Investment in Local Institutions
In the 1980s, after public television had gained more traction, local school boards saw the medium as an opportunity to build investment in their schools. From Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, to WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, to Southern Oregon Public Television and the New Jersey Network, school administrators found their way onto the television schedule. These broadcasts capture one local institution — public television — supporting another — the public school system — working together toward the broader goals of community growth and democratic citizenship. One of the values of the AAPB collection is that it does not just capture history from the perspective of major cities, but also from local communities across the country as they cope with new national problems.
Excellence in Education Coverage
For years, John Merrow, one of the most well-respected education journalists, found his home in public broadcasting. Following the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” in 1983, television coverage of educational stories expanded. However, the education beat tended to go to entry-level journalists and had the distinct flavor of “youth at risk” sensationalism. Merrow bucked this trend with thoughtful commentary on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and in his stand-alone documentaries, collectively called “The Merrow Report.” With his commitment to asking tough questions and following up on stories, Merrow set the gold standard for what education coverage should look like, all on public television.
These are just a few of the examples from the archive of public education reporting. But they reflect public television’s goal: to educate and serve the public. In pursuit of this goal, member stations have produced compelling, thoughtful local programs like these and many more over the past 50-plus years. This content is a gold mine for the historian.