Skip to content

Marketpiece Theater

Nicholas Kristof and Milton Friedman rescue the world

In one way or another, last year’s frenzied election spectacle offered an array of occasions for our coverage-battered electorate to return to one basic question: “Where on Earth did they get that idea?” It didn’t matter, really, if what occasioned the weary refrain was news of yet another drone attack, bizarre conjecture on the biological function of women’s bodies after sexual assault, or the working thesis that fully 47 percent of the voting public was made up of zombified robots hooked on the federal dole. Amid the genuine divisions wracking our republic, our bafflement over how the political class believes we—and the world—work was truly nonpartisan.

As it was designed to be. For the consensus ideology guiding issues of policy and piety was designed for popularization, and then mass-disseminated through the mass-est media of all: TV. The girders of our modern political, economic, and cultural structure can be seen clearly in a nicely bookended pair of television franchises—oddly enough, for the Romney-fied Right, both broadcast on PBS.

The first is Free to Choose (1980), starring the Nobel Prize–winning, kindly seeming yet fire-breathing economist Milton Friedman. The second, flashier offering is Half the Sky (2012), starring Nicholas Kristof—the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times columnist—in an instructive series about women’s central role in the great market order. The Friedman series presented neoliberal thought as nonpartisan—even apolitical—common sense, and thus the only reasonable path to global salvation. Kristof merely glosses the utopian vision Friedman put into action: the great man’s views are self-evident, it seems, a fait accompli only in need of a bit of pizzazz.

Yet the beams upholding our political and economic beliefs are shoddily constructed of fluff and dreams, lies and unlikelihoods, ego and spite. Come, let us watch them crumble, together.

What We All Want

The economic mythology born in Free to Choose was conceived in 1977, when Bob Chitester, general manager of the Erie, Pennsylvania, PBS affiliate, approached Friedman about filming a free-market counterpoint to liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s series The Age of Uncertainty, then airing on the network. Friedman jumped at the chance; history was made. In ten hour-long episodes, he laid out the principles of what came to be called Reaganomics—and later, the globalized order of neoliberal free trade. A year after the show’s first broadcast in 1980—with Friedman acting as unofficial economic adviser to the newly elected president—Reagan met with U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher; the two world leaders entered their own special relationship (the actual diplomatic term)—busting unions, slashing taxes, and privatizing substantial swaths of the public sector. The alliance was merely the first and highest-profile affirmation of Friedman’s new world order. Today, leaders of former socialist and communist states commonly claim that Free to Choose furnished the conceptual building blocks for their reforms.

The reach of Friedman’s television show marked, among other things, the triumph of market Orwellianism. Once Free to Choose aired, freedom meant economic license. Choice meant market competition. And people meant consumers. The basic metaphors governing the world shifted, with value now conferred in accordance with the new terminology.

Free to Choose hardly offered a portrait of freedom. Instead, it drove home the totalizing ambitions of Friedman’s vision. Each episode (“The Tyranny of Control,” “Created Equal,” “What’s Wrong with Our Schools?”) begins with a travelogue: a short, grainy film showing Friedman in some remote or developed corner of the world; in the former setting, he utters laconic dispatches about poverty and red tape, and in the latter, he rhapsodizes anapestically about freedom and government deregulation. (Milton’s wife, Rose, also an economist, has an associate producer’s credit on the show and coauthored a book of the same title based on series transcripts, but does not speak when onscreen.) We then cut to the Harper Library at the University of Chicago, Friedman’s institutional home base. There Friedman fields queries from fellow economists (and other experts, on occasion) who provide him opportunity to explicate his theories regarding the market-challenged state of the world. Robert McKenzie, a Canadian-born psephologist and professor of politics and sociology, moderates.

McKenzie’s intervention proves necessary more than once. The diminutive Friedman possessed an affable, camera-friendly manner, but in intellectual terms, he was wiliness personified. (Interviewer Lawrence Spivak, the journalist who cofounded Meet the Press, practically says as much in the final episode of the series, “How to Stay Free.”) When Friedman died in 2006, and then again last year on what would have been his hundredth birthday, Friedman was eulogized for his supposed ability to make complicated economic principles comprehensible to average folk. It is more accurate to call him a master polemicist—if a terminally myopic one. (Friedman was known in his circle to make only collect calls when phoning people long-distance.) In every episode of Free to Choose, someone calls him out on basic misstatements of fact.

But Friedman doesn’t let the cavilers get him down. He just smiles, widely and paternalistically, chuckles, and reframes the debate—usually as one that the dissenter does not fully comprehend. His leaps in logic are often neatly sidestepped as McKenzie follows his mandate to keep the debate on track—the “track” being Friedman’s economic propositions as stated, and not the way they redefine notions central to American thought. Other leaps are visual in nature: most episodes provide viewers a truly insane hodgepodge of things that seem relevant, things that are interesting, and things that, it is assumed, everyone desires. In one segment, for example, Friedman is clad in a dapper suit and seated atop a massive stack of gold bars. Clearly, his policies will be lucrative for all. The visual and verbal non sequiturs multiply: Marlene Dietrich’s legs! A gainfully employed black construction worker! India! Muhammad Ali! Young white students playing classical music!

Of course, amid this Google-image-search-style representation of market-fostered desire, less bedazzling moments of clarity seep through. Women and people of color, for example, are excluded from most panels, but featured heavily in the fourth segment, the one on welfare and Medicaid. This casting decision amounts to an acknowledgement that market logic works only for certain folks, but Friedman is too wrapped up in his own avuncularity to parse the symbolism here. No one brings up Friedman’s consulting gig with the recently installed Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet until the fifth segment. When political scientist Frances Fox Piven mentions the Chicago economics school’s troubling and otherwise high-profile role in advancing the violent suppression of dissent and the rapid privatization of public resources in the country, Friedman interrupts her to provide an aggrandizing view of the brutal regime. When Piven brings it up again, McKenzie changes the subject. The net effect of the whole decontextualized exchange is to suggest that Piven might be crazy. At no point does Friedman look discomfited, let alone shaken.

Segments thereafter become chaotically detached from reality, but the descent into madness bottoms out in episode eight. “Who Protects the Worker?” opens with a wacky account of how unions hold back laborers and thwart economic prosperity, citing Hippocrates as an ally in the present-day struggle to free the world of organized labor. Cut to an ambulance arriving at the scene of a medical emergency. Cut to Joe Dolphin, president of a private ambulance service; he’s with Friedman and Hippocrates on this one. Cut to actual dolphins. Cut to the vice president of Sea World—another union foe. The viewer is left with a vague sense of PBS-approved edification—we’ve made a series of twists and turns, leapt the span from ancient to modern history, and traversed a couple of continents. But it’s not at all clear how we got here, and the underlying logic behind the segment’s central claim—that labor unions harm the potential for worker prosperity—is never fully explained. As would soon be the case with MTV’s stylistic innovations in the field of consumer-friendly montages (as well as those that would follow several decades later, Tumblr and Pinterest), the curious visual semiotics of want-for-want’s-sake simply perpetrate a logic that casual viewers are urged to accept as self-evident.

Beyond the show’s visual innovations, it was clear from the start that Friedman had hit upon a ridiculously successful formula—and business model. Viewership of Free to Choose was reportedly larger than that of Masterpiece Theatre, PBS’s top program at the time, which then boasted some three million domestic viewers per episode. Friedman’s show was also a huge financial success—as one could expect for a talk show lauding multinational corporations as protectors of core American freedoms, however unhinged that show’s presentation format may be. Friedman kept production costs low by improvising from loose outlines on camera, thereby eliminating the need to pay writers, but the real boon came in on the bottom line: the Friedmans’ junkets were financed privately by PepsiCo, General Motors, and Bechtel, among others, saving the Public Broadcasting System thousands of dollars while privatizing a tiny corner of it. If Friedman’s policies were to be implemented, all these companies would profit handsomely. (Spoiler alert: They were. They did.) Meanwhile, the book version of Free to Choose became a top-selling nonfiction title in the United States for 1980, and was eventually translated into seventeen languages.

The series was also broadcast in several major national markets (except France, as Rose noted with contempt in the Friedmans’ autobiography). And in 1990, PBS recut and reaired Free to Choose, slicing the number of episodes in half, updating the discussion panel, and adding a slew of celebrity hosts. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Allen, and Ronald Reagan were just a few of the hulking arbiters of the now-accepted market consensus who turned up to reframe and amplify Friedman’s arguments. It, too, was a resounding success.

But to appreciate just how instrumental Free to Choose was in changing the world, one need look no further than the later career of its host network, the Public Broadcasting Service. In 1981, with the same sort of market-osculating passion that Friedman heartily endorsed, Congress and the FCC began deregulating media ownership. Television licenses were extended, and lawmakers increased the number of television outlets any single broadcast enterprise could own. Six years later, the FCC overturned the Fairness Doctrine, which had mandated local community representation and contrasting points of view in broadcast media. President Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 further expanded the rights of private entities to buy up more media outlets, which brought about unprecedented media consolidation. PBS, only ten years old in 1980, quickly began allowing for more and more privately financed programs to develop broadcast sponsorship messages—making the public network virtually indistinguishable from advertising-supported networks by the time Free to Choose was rebroadcast in 1990.

Chitester’s production company, named (of course) the Free to Choose Network, was there to cash in from the start, under a mission statement seemingly written by Friedman himself: “To use accessible and entertaining media to build popular support for personal, economic, and political freedom. We believe these freedoms are interdependent and must be sustained by the rule of law,” it reads, noting elsewhere that this agenda is distinctly nonpartisan. The 501(c)(3) company offers both versions of Free to Choose for free online streaming, sells educational videos, and sponsors a Winning Ideas Weekend, where folks of all ages can learn about “the ideas that give rise to free and prosperous societies,” according to the company’s website. The Free to Choose Network is also behind, “a not-for-profit providing more than 300,000 teachers with engaging educational videos and materials promoting critical thinking and thoughtful discussion among students.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that some of this programming, available for cheap to increasingly profit-minded educational institutions and broadcast entities, offers truth-challenged content on climate change and other subjects likely close to Friedman’s heart. In 2010, for example, Free to Choose Media released a three-hour documentary on Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz called Turmoil and Triumph, financed by corporations that had retained Shultz as a board member. (He also introduced the 1990 Free to Choose segment “The Tyranny of Control.”) On July 12, 2010, before the program aired, FAIR Media pointed out to PBS that it had previously pulled programming when funders were too closely aligned with its subject matter; labor unions, lesbian rights organizations, and domestic violence groups, for example, had been reined in over similar allegations. The ombudsman of the network agreed that broadcasting such biased programming likely represented a conflict of interest. Yet the Free to Choose Network’s Turmoil and Triumph aired unaltered on that putative broadcast oracle of liberalism, PBS.

Some critics of the rightward drift of national economic policy seem inclined to downplay Friedman’s successful popularization of economic debate as the work of a libertarian iconoclast. Yet to grasp the full reach of Friedman’s legacy, we need to reckon with something far more banal, and therefore more terrifying: Free to Choose gave America a new guiding consensus: the common-sense view among liberals and conservatives alike that market regulation unfairly limited the potential for liberation throughout the world. Impervious to both logic and fact, and viral before viral media existed, Free to Choose forged a new cultural accord on the uncontested reign of the market that not had yet existed in quite this way before. In truth, there was barely a national news story in 2012 that wasn’t presaged by one of the Free to Choose episodes—presented thirty-two years earlier as educational programming.

Sky’s the Limit

Yet the executives at PBS apparently decided that, on the eve of the 2012 election, American viewers must be reminded of the true path to global freedom. So on the first two days of October, Nicholas Kristof’s fiercely neoliberal series Half the Sky reprised the tried-and-true Friedman formula, in content, form, and financing. Kristof, a lauded op-ed columnist for the New York Times, might seem at first blush an unlikely standard-bearer for the Friedman televisual tradition—but that is exactly the point. After three decades of steady high-market consensus in American culture and politics, the formerly doctrinaire libertarian Friedman and the putatively pragmatic liberal Kristof are now advancing the same policy objectives. The bestselling book on which the series is based (which Kristof coauthored with his wife, journalist turned banker Sheryl WuDunn) hits all the high notes of market triumphalism masquerading as considered social policy; its subtitle is Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, not Ending Gender-Based Oppression Because It Sucks and Is Immoral.

Half the Sky presents a litany of reforms tailored for a market-besotted (but, you know, concerned) viewing public. The show focuses obsessively on a distinctly Westernized notion of education (and the entrepreneurial opportunities that duly market-reformed schools provide), casts state-crafted barriers to market freedom as human rights issues, and understands women and girls in terms of “untapped” economic returns. “Time and time again,” WuDunn says, “what impressed us the most is that girls represent an opportunity. Think of all that untapped potential.” Yet in the great tradition of debate-reframing pioneered by Friedman, Kristof’s show displays a chronic lack of interest in women’s lived experiences under conditions of poverty. Stripped of its you-go-girl trappings, the basic argument is the same: more people should have access to the free market. Even the core format of the presentation—famous and flashy guest presenters, gritty travelogue footage, and a rotating corps of state-sanctioned or academic weigher-inners—is lifted from the Friedman series script.

Indeed, Kristof remains one of the Times’ most ardent parroters of free-market dogma. From his prestigious perch in the paper’s opinion section, he has downplayed the grievances of striking workers, single-handedly revitalized the Welfare Queen scare, and thumped the tub for neoliberal educational reform—i.e., the gradual privatization of the American public school system.

On screen, however, Kristof is happy to let others share the spotlight—and he has plenty of celebrity takers. George Clooney, in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role, opens the series. While images of a young female rape victim in Sierra Leone appear on screen, Clooney’s voiceover explains that stories such as hers are “interesting.” But the real story, we quickly learn, is Kristof himself: “Nick is the guy doing the legwork,” Clooney proclaims. “The celebrity involvement may be able to amplify the story,” the actor adds. “That’s all. That’s all we can do!” Clooney, long known to covet elected office, says this in the surprised tone of a man who has been asked to do more but has regrettably proven incapable. Of course, in a given year, George Clooney earns close to a full percentage point of Sierra Leone’s entire GDP from his film work alone, so he could do more if he wanted to. But what he wants is for viewers to honor the underappreciated work of a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning Times columnist while images of young brown women living under severe repression flash across the screen, context-free. (The corollary footage in Free to Choose has Friedman droning on about the failures of Social Security to promote market competition while brown urban youth play gleefully around an open fire hydrant.)

If this were a publicly funded project, a sense of accountability might have crept into the script. But like much of what now passes for public media, the film was funded by a coterie of foundations—longstanding ones, like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Ford Foundations, but newer players, too: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women, the IKEA Foundation, and the Nike Foundation. These are all, in other words, philanthropic arms of businesses that have derived enormous profits by taking advantage of some of the same women in developing nations we meet over the ensuing four hours.

Yet what happens during this pair of two-hour episodes is difficult to parse. Bookended by Clooney’s boosterism, the series is divided into six forty-minute segments, each filmed in a different developing nation, now struggling to emerge from recent geopolitical and human rights conflicts. Each installment boasts a celebrity guest, a host activist, and a star victim. These last play support roles in the narrative, rather like Rose Friedman in Free to Choose: each designated victim is easy to overlook because she is so often spoken for. So even though it’s a documentary, about a New York Times journalist, on PBS, it’s hard to tell what exactly transpired, and what did not. In journalism, activism, and foreign aid—arguably the three pillars of Half the Sky—the distinction between fact and fiction should be clear, but it collapses completely.

Let’s look, for example, at the second segment, filmed in Cambodia, in which movie star Meg Ryan and local activist Somaly Mam join Kristof in saving victims of sex trafficking. Much of the episode focuses on a woman named Somana, formerly Long Pros, of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s Voices for Change program, an NGO that trains survivors of sex trafficking in advocacy and public speaking. Since 2005, when she first moved to a shelter run by another of Mam’s foundations, Somana has served as a high-profile symbol of the human trafficking problem in Cambodia. She is also an ardent and outspoken activist on sexual health and women’s rights issues. Her disability—she is missing an eye—marks Somana as one who has survived. Heroically. She’s met with Hillary Clinton. She’s been featured on Oprah.

With prodding from Kristof, Somana reveals her tragic tale on camera to a group of sex workers she seeks to aid. “My eye was stabbed by a brothel owner,” she says, describing continued abuse, rape, and degradation in the wake of the attack. But this was only the start of her story, she tells the young women gathered around her, as the crowd’s mingled sympathy and horror mounts. “Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn’t want me around.” That’s not what Somana’s parents told the Cambodia Daily, which questioned the eye-stabbing tale soon after it aired on PBS. They describe a healthy relationship with their daughter, who, they say, visits regularly. Her facial deformity is explained by the removal of a tumor in 2005, they claim. Dr. Pok Thorn of the Takeo Eye Hospital confirmed that the girl had undergone surgery and recovery in his care. Other doctors the Daily contacted reported that her scar did not appear to be consistent with violent trauma; the police chief of the anti-human trafficking bureau in Phnom Penh similarly reported that he had never received word of such a stabbing. Indeed, an earlier version of Somana’s story left the incident out entirely: in 2008, she told another writer her face had been kicked in, and doctors had removed her eye as a result. A spokesperson for the Somaly Mam Foundation apologized and announced days later that Somana would be demoted pending a review of her case.

This outcome was especially unfortunate, given Somaly’s own history of truth-bending. In April 2012, Mam presented false information to the UN, stating that when her center was raided in 2004, eight girls were murdered. She later apologized, claiming ambiguous statements had been misinterpreted. No such deaths have ever been reported, although anti-trafficking police acknowledge that a number of women did leave the shelter at that time, perhaps willingly. Earlier, in her 2007 autobiography The Road of Lost Innocence, Mam claimed her own daughter had been kidnapped; Mam’s ex-husband disputes that claim.

The ambiguity mirrors an even more pressing issue. Several of Mam’s—and, by extension, Kristof’s and the New York Times’—“rescue missions” have been, well, not so rescuey. Together, Mam and Kristof have raided brothels and reportedly saved girls allegedly abducted by sex traffickers. Shortly after the duo’s well-hyped adventures, though, many “saved” girls simply returned to their jobs. (Remember when Kristof “bought” two girls from a brothel in 2004—a crime, by the way, for which he has never been charged? One of them later returned.) Mam claims that rescued women suffer something like Stockholm syndrome, but another explanation may be even more distressing for certain readers: some sex workers prefer their jobs to the available alternatives. In Cambodia, there is really only one other choice for women: jobs in the too-low-wage-to-survive garment factories. Rehabilitation, as shown in Half the Sky, includes sewing lessons. Reports have surfaced that some supposed trafficking victims are held against their will at Mam’s centers. (“Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights!” is a rallying cry for sex workers in Southeast Asia.)

The problem is not just that Kristof is a bad journalist for failing to see clear inaccuracies, follow up with questions, and provide readers an accurate look at the developing world, or any world. (Although, of course, he is.) The deeper problem is that the truth—here, and in Free to Choose—isn’t valued. Somana’s lies, delivered as recruitment speeches to the women she aims to enlist to Mam’s cause, may have been learned from Mam herself. Certainly Mam did not seek to uncover them. And who can blame either? There are too few options for women’s employment in Cambodia, as the nation moves into the wage-and-rights-indifferent vanguard of today’s global capitalism. Somaly Mam’s funding comes largely, if not exclusively, from American sources—which, in turn, come to her organizations through Kristof’s regular coverage. The service Mam provides in exchange for Kristof’s attention may seem distasteful to you, but the narrative sells papers. That’s market logic. Or as Friedman himself famously put it: “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are . . . it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”

What you want to buy is the Superman myth, although you will settle for rags-to-riches inspiration and good old lesbian porn, which, luckily enough, is also on offer in Half the Sky. Indeed, the final episode is a crude celebration of market viability, starring ladies. Olivia Wilde, the smartest celebrity in the Kristof retinue, arrives alone at the Umoja Women’s Village in Kenya. They welcome her with a vagina song. They visit an actual market. They devise business plans. They talk microlending. They position U.S. trade as a central component of any successful business. It’s like a girl-on-girl slashfic version of Free to Choose.

In the end viewers are left not with an organization to support, a child to sponsor, or an accurate understanding of the world useful for eradicating further injustice. No: They’re left with only Half the Sky—the book. It is the primary focus of the whole enterprise, in fact, netting more mentions than any single victim, activist, or celebrity. In the six-segment, four-hour complete run, Nicholas Kristof, the brand, gets six plugs. And Half the Sky, the book, gets nine.

Guns, Sweat, and Butter

In 2009, Kristof devoted a Times column to extolling the virtues of Cambodian sweatshops. “The central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough,” he wrote on January 14. His argument was that labor standards in trade agreements limited the ability of multinational corporations to offer jobs to workers in developing nations. He could have noted that Cambodia’s labor standards and trade agreements already ensure that licensed garment factories are definitely not sweatshops, which is kind of true. (I have elsewhere debunked both the modern usage of the term sweatshop and the apparently willful misapprehension of it by Western journalists.) He also could have used the term “employ” instead of “exploit,” but in both instances he is going for racy. Clearly, Kristof learned polemics from the master: Milton Friedman.

After Friedman’s death, an American Progress eulogy noted that the economist once asked pointedly: “Is anyone forcing those Vietnamese to work in Nike factories at the point of a gun?” Perhaps not the Vietnamese, no. But in Cambodia, maybe—and while the two Southeast Asian neighbor states differ in many ways, the trade agreements that bind them to the United States, and to the multinational companies that profit from them on American soil, are similar. We know this much: some Cambodian sex workers are being held against their will, and guns are common enough in the country that it’s not a stretch to believe that they’re used by guards—at least until the coerced women in question get jobs in the garment factories. And in February 2012, three garment workers were shot by the governor of a southern province for protesting wages at half the level they need to survive.

Fear of a gun, fear of starvation: the two are fungible. Nike, which operates in Cambodia and Vietnam, could simply raise their workers’ pay. Certainly a Kristof-penned New York Times column would do wonders to bolster the effort. An initiative like that, and the standard it would set for other garment manufacturers, would significantly increase the likelihood that women would willingly leave the sex trade. Instead, the Nike Foundation deploys its fortune to fund Half the Sky, ensuring that women in developing nations stay in poverty, ensuring their need for a commercial sex industry, ensuring itself a feel-good name-check, ensuring Nicholas Kristof a job, and ensuring an enduring legacy for Milton Friedman.

Or, you know, for as long as this shoddy construction holds.