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In the absence of countervailing portrayals of American cold-war policies and institutions, the indictments presented in PBS documentaries amounted to an editorial position. In the PBS perspective, the United States emerged as an imperialist, counterrevolutionary power whose national-security apparatus was directed not at containing an expansionist empire but (in the words of the producers of On Company Business) at suppressing “people who have dared struggle for a better life.”
Ironically, this Marxist caricature received a full-dress treatment on PBS channels in 1989, the very year the Communist utopia collapsed in ruins. The American Century was a five-part, five-hour series written and hosted by the editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, which purported to chart the course of American foreign policy from 1900. The final segment traced American cold-war policy from 1945 to 1975. It did not pay tribute to the heroic efforts of containment which would soon result in the liberation of millions upon millions of people from the chains of a tyranny as great as the world has ever known. It rehearsed, instead, the same old left-wing litany-Guatemala, Iran, the Bay of Pigs-to claim that under the cloak of anti-Communism, third-world progress had become the victim of greedy U.S. corporations and their secret allies in the U.S. government (described by Lapham in relation to Cuba as “the agent of the reactionary past”). This summary segment of the series was called Imperial Masquerade, and it appeared in December 1989 even as East Berliners were tearing down their Wall.
The view of America as an evil empire was powerfully reinforced by PBS’s treatment of post-Vietnam Communism in other documentary pro-grams. In 1975, PBS aired China Memoir, a piece about the Maoist paradise by the actress Shirley MacLaine. So wide-eyed was it that PBS’s own chairman was forced to concede that it was “pure propaganda.” China Memoir was followed by The Children of China (1977), which was praised by Communist officials who thought it would help Americans to “understand the new China.” The “new” North Korea and the “new” Cuba were also the focus of promotional features in North Korea (1978), Cuba, Sport and Revolution (1979), Cuba: The New Man (1986), and Cuba-In the Shadow of Doubt (1986), about which the New York Times commented: “At its best, the documentary has a romantic infatuation with Cuba; at its worst, it is calculated propaganda.”
As the locus of the cold war shifted to Central America in the 1980′s, documentary after documentary appeared on PBS celebrating the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua and the FMLN terrorists in E1l Salvador. These included From the Ashes . . . Nicaragua Today (1982), Target Nicaragua (1983), and El Salvador, Another Vietnam? (1981). The producers of these programs, all presented by WNET, were the radical activist filmmakers who had come in from the 70′s cold (among them: World Focus Films of Berkeley, the Women’s Film Project, and the Institute for Policy Studies).
As with its celebrations of American Communism, PBS showed no eagerness to balance this advocacy with other views. In 1983, the American Catholic Committee offered WNET a program critical of the Marxist regime, Nicaragua: A Model for Latin America? The Catholic film was based on documentary footage and dealt with government repression of the press, the Roman Catholic Church, and independent labor unions. WNET rejected the film, on the ground that it had “a better way to handle this information.”
And indeed in 1985, a Frontline program called Central America in Crisis did take a critical look at the various sides of the conflict, while in 1986, Nicaragua Was Our Home-a film focusing on the plight of the Miskito Indians-was aired in response to the protests over WNET’s previous offerings. But for the most part, the “better way” to handle information about Nicaragua turned out to be pretty much the way it had been handled before.
In 1984, for example, the Frontline series featured Nicaragua: Report From the Front whose message (in the words of the New York Times reviewer John Corry) was: “Sandinistas are good: their opponents are bad. There is no middle ground.” The same wisdom was the message of two subsequent Frontline reports: Who’s Running This War? (1986), which portrayed the contras as Somocistas bent on violating human rights, and The War on Nicaragua, which was named one of “The Worst Shows of the Year” in 1987 by the liberal critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, John Carman, who called it “shoddy, unfair, and manipulative journalism.”
Nor did the PBS approach to Communist movements alter when addressing the conflicts in other Central American countries. Thus Guatemala: When the Mountains Tremble (1985) was panned by the New York Times as a “vanity film” because of its agitprop character, and the Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, summed it up in the following terms:
The film is bluntly didactic and one-sided in portraying Guatemalan rebels as noble freedom fighters and Guatemalan peasants opposed to the present regime as the victims of repression, torture, and squalor.
At least four of the programs on Central America which PBS chose to air during this crucial decade before Communism’s collapse were the work of a single director and radical ideologue, Deborah Shaffer, whose “solidarity” with the Communist dictators of Nicaragua, and their guerrilla allies in El Salvador and Guatemala, was a proudly displayed item in her curriculum vitae. Her most celebrated documentary, Fire From the Mountain (1988), an aggressive promotion of Sandinista myths, was based on the autobiography of the Sandinista secret-police chief, Omar Cabezas, while her other films-El Salvador: Another Vietnam? (1981), Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements (1986), and Nicaragua: Report From the Front (1984)-all reflected her commitment to the politics of the Central American guerrillas.
In 1988, the Congressional Oversight Committees for Public Television, led by their Democratic chairmen, Representative Edward Markey and Senator Daniel Inouye, institutionalized this revolutionary front inside PBS by authorizing the transfer of $24 million of CPB monies to set up the Independent Television Service (ITVS) as a separate fund for “independent” film-makers. Representing the independents in testimony before the committees were Deborah Shaffer’s producer, Pam Yates of Skylight Productions, and Larry Daressa, co-chairman of the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers. Daressa, who later turned up on the ITVS board, was also the president of California Newsreel, flagship of the radical film collectives and producer of such 60′s classics as Black Panther and The People’s War, a triumphalist view of the Communist conquest of Vietnam.
Biting the hand that had fed him and his ideological comrades so generously, Daressa attacked PBS for knuckling under to “corporate interests”:
Independent producers have found themselves progressively marginalized in this brave new world of semi-commercial, public pay television. Our diverse voices reflecting the breadth of America’s communities and opinions have no place in public television’s plans to turn itself into an upscale version of the networks. We have found that insofar as we speak with an independent voice we have no place in public television.
But as one veteran member of the public-television community scoffed on hearing this testimony:
These people are not “diverse,” they’re politically correct. Nor are they “independent.” These are the commissars of the political Left. These are the people who basically owned the Vietnamese and Cuban and Nicaraguan franchises, who got so close to Communist officials and guerrilla capos that if you wanted to get access for interviews or permission even to bring camera equipment into the “liberated zone” in certain cases, you had to go through them.
Nevertheless, Congress authorized $24 million in public funds to the artistic commissars of the ITVS, thereby providing the extreme Left with an institutional base in public television.
All during its tenure, the Reagan administration battled Soviet-backed Marxists in Central America and the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua. Yet there was no direct White House response to the PBS attacks on its Central American policies, or even to PBS’s propaganda war in behalf of the Communist enemy. Far from attempting to control public television through CPB, as the Nixon administration had (unsuccessfully) done, the Reagan White House even reappointed Sharon Rockefeller, a Carter nominee and liberal Democrat, as CPB chairman. Penn James, who handled White House appointments, recalls:
Our intention had been to remove her as chairman, just as we tried to do with every other agency. But when we announced our intention, her father, Senator Charles Percy, was outraged. He went storming over to the White House and told the President: “If you want my cooperation on the Foreign Relations committee, you’d better reappoint my daughter.” So we did.
But with Reagan’s reelection and her father’s defeat, Rockefeller was replaced as chairman by Sonia Landau. The following spring, a Reagan appointee, Richard Brookhiser, offered a modest proposal to the CPB board. Brookhiser suggested that CPB undertake a scientific “content analysis” of the current-affairs programs it had funded to see if they were indeed tipped to one side of the political scale. The board would be “derelict,” he said, if it did not try to assure the “objectivity and balance” of its programming as the 1967 Act had mandated.
It seemed a straightforward request, but the reaction was almost entirely negative. Charges of “neo-McCarthyism” were hurled in Brookhiser’s direction, and PBS vice president Barry Chase scolded:
It is inappropriate for a presidentially appointed group to be conducting a content analysis of programming. It indicates that some people on the CPB board don’t fully understand the appropriate constraints on them.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, was less restrained:
In 1973, President Nixon in fact tried to kill federal funding for public television through his political appointees to the board, and the kind of chicanery that went on at the time. They didn’t do a “content analysis.” Content analysis seems to me a little more sophisticated way of achieving those ends.
Such accusations were sufficiently intimidating to stall the proposal. Brookhiser could not secure enough support even from the Reagan-appointed majority to get approval. Meeting in June, the CPB board decided to postpone its decision on the study until September. But before it could do so, a new controversy erupted, which demonstrated just how weak the conservatives’ influence on public television was, and how powerful their liberal adversaries had become.
The casus belli was a nine-part series on Africa presented by WETA. The Africans had been underwritten by more than $1 million in grants from PBS, CPB, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). When Lynne Cheney, the chairman of NEH, received an additional request from WETA for $50,000 to promote the series, she decided to screen it. Her response was outrage:
I have just finished viewing all nine hours of The Africans. Worse than unbalanced, this film frequently degenerates into anti-Western diatribe…. [One entire segment, Tools of Exploitation] strives to blame every technological, moral, and economic failure of Africa on the West. …. The film moves from distressing moment to distressing moment, climaxing in Part IX where Qaddafi’s virtues are set forth.
Shortly thereafter, pictures of mushroom clouds fill the screen and it is suggested that Africans are about to come into their own, because after the “final racial conflict” in South Africa, black Africans will have nuclear weapons.
Cheney told WETA that not only would she not finance the promotion of the series, but she wanted the NEH credits removed from the print. “Our logo is regarded as a mark of approbation, and NEH most decidedly does not approve of this film.”
Cheney’s position was in striking contrast to PBS’s defense of the series, which was to disclaim all responsibility for the product that bore its imprint. Said Christensen:
We don’t make the programs at PBS, and we have no editorial control ultimately over what is put in the program…. Until a series is delivered to PBS for distribution, we have no editorial input or oversight over the producer or anyone connected to the project.
It was an evasion that the bureaucratic complexities of the system made possible. True, PBS did not actually “produce” programs and, in that most technical sense, could not be held responsible for what was in them. But this was to beg the question. As “gatekeeper” for the national distribution of programs, PBS daily rejected projects simply on the grounds that they “did not meet PBS standards.” A thick volume of “Standards and Practices” was, in fact, distributed to independent producers warning them that public television had to “maintain the confidence of its viewers,” and that, consequently, producers had to adhere strictly to the official PBS guidelines for quality. Moreover, once a series like The Africans was aired, it bore the PBS logo, and was promoted and distributed by PBS on cassette and often in companion book form, with educational aids, to schools and libraries. Such activities constituted an active endorsement and, like the decision to air the programs in the first place, was not merely an imposition, as Christensen implied.
In seeking support from the press and Congress, however, PBS executives deployed a more persuasive argument than their own impotence. For NEH or PBS to exert any judgment on the quality of The Africans, they claimed, would be to engage in a form of censorship. NEH, Christensen told the Los Angeles Times, is “not the Ministry of Truth,” and warned that if Cheney were to insist on entering the editing room “there will be no NEH funding in public television.”
This line of reasoning was more effective but no less spurious. It simply ignored the right (let alone the obligation) of a funder to impose guidelines and conditions on the recipients of its gifts. It also ignored the fact that CPB’s own standard contract with producers stipulated that it would be allowed to see rough cuts and make changes it regarded as necessary. Christensen’s argument also ignored PBS’s own responsibility-emphasized by PBS officials on other occasions-for the character of programs they distributed and promoted.
With PBS again polarized as the public’s David against the government Goliath, Brookhiser’s proposal was doomed. A move by 57 House members to stimulate an inquiry into the matters that Brookhiser had raised was easily rebuffed by the appropriate committee head, John Dingell. To consolidate these victories, PBS appointed a committee to review its own procedures. Stacked with an in-house majority, the committee avoided any systematic review of programming, and concluded with a pat on its own back:
PBS’s procedures … have encouraged programs of high quality that reflect a wide range of information, opinion, and artistic expression and that satisfy accepted journalistic standards. The fact that business would proceed as usual became quickly apparent. In the fall of 1989, WNET presented a 90-minute documentary about the Palestinian intifada entitled Days of Rage. It turned out to be a catalogue of horror stories about the Israeli occupation, featuring interviews with Palestinian moderates and Israeli extremists, and omitting any mention of Palestinian terrorism.
During the battle over Days of Rage, WNET was besieged by public protests and membership cancellations but held fast to its decision. Reflecting later on his role in airing the program, WNET vice president Robert Kotlowitz displayed an attitude that was both perverse and at the same time characteristic of that of other public-television officials:
I thought the intifada program was a horror. It was a horror. And I wasn’t happy with having it on the air. But I’m still happy that we made the decision to go with it.
It was, by any standard, an extraordinary admission for a professional journalist. One would be hard put to imagine, for example, a CBS executive first acknowledging a story’s indefensibility and then claiming an achievement in running it.
In trying to understand this attitude, as well as the generally leftist bias of PBS, it is necessary to recognize that the entire public-television community (and that includes its friends in Congress) operates out of loyalty to what insiders refer to as the “mission.” Simply put, the mission is a mandate to give the public what commercial television, because it is “constrained by the commercial necessity of delivering mass audiences to advertisers,” allegedly cannot provide. The words belong to the current president of PBS, Bruce Christensen, and are contemporary. But they could as well have been taken from the Carnegie Commission report of 25 years ago. The mission is what makes public television “public.” It is its life principle and raison d’être. It is what justifies the hundreds of millions of government and privately contributed dollars necessary to keep the system going.
But the mission is also what provides a rationale under which extreme Left viewpoints have a presumptive claim on public air time. This is the rationale that justifies the indefensible propaganda of programs like Days of Rage and the promos for Communist guerrillas in Central America. It is the rationale under which a partisan journalist like Nina Totenberg, who was involved in the leak that nearly destroyed Clarence Thomas, could be assigned by PBS as its principal reporter and commentator on the hearings triggered by that very leak.
Just how much a part of the ethos of public television this attitude has become can be seen in a recent controversy involving Bill Moyers, who has been praised as a “national treasure” by the present PBS programming chief, Jennifer Lawson. Moyers had come under fire as the author of PBS’s only two full-length documentaries on the Iran-contra affair, The Secret Government (1987) and High Crimes and Misdemeanors (1990). Critics (of whom I was one) questioned whether these programs met the standards of fairness and balance that public television was legally supposed to honor. Moyers’s response was a tortured invocation of public television’s mission:
What deeper understanding of our role in the world could we have come to by praising Oliver North yet again, when we had already gotten five full days before Congress, with wall-to-wall coverage on network, cable, and public air-waves, to tell his side of the story? In fact, it hardly seems consistent with “objectivity, balance, and fairness” that the other side of his story got only two 90-minute documentaries on public television. [Emphasis added.]
For anyone not steeped in Moyers’s own political mythology this was an eccentric view of what had taken place. North, of course, had not produced his own network documentary. He had been hauled before a congressional committee largely made up of political enemies who were bent on exposing him as a malefactor and on discrediting the administration in which he had served. Yet because he had turned the tables on them and emerged from his ordeal with a positive approval rating, Moyers blithely and blandly assumed that the commercial networks had been telling only North’s “side of the story.” Therefore the mission of public television was not to present a balance of views within its own schedule, as its enabling legislation required, but to attack North more successfully than the stagers of the hearings had managed to do.
Quite apart from its absurdity, Moyers’s position reveals how out of date is the concept that originally inspired public television. For the fact that the Iran-contra hearings, which attempted to impugn the integrity and even the legitimacy of the Reagan presidency, were aired on all three networks, not to mention C-Span and CNN, means just the opposite of what Moyers seems to think it means. It means that public television can no longer position itself as the only channel on which anti-establishment views can be broadcast. Recognizing this occupation of its point on the spectrum, public television has sought a new space by positioning itself even more firmly on the Left.
There is also, perhaps, another factor at work here-bad conscience. This bad conscience stems, first, from PBS’s increasing reliance on big corporations in its search for funds. Thus, between 1973 and 1978, corporate “underwriting” of public television went up nearly 500 percent. By the 1980′s, corporate sponsorship accounted for almost as much of the public-television budget as its entire federal subsidy. Worse yet for the liberal conscience, the leaders in this trend, contributing more than half the total support, were big bad oil companies like Mobil, Exxon, and Gulf.
But even more significant is the degree to which, with the advent of cable, commercial stations have begun to compete directly with PBS. The Arts & Entertainment network (A&E) was started by the head of PBS’s cultural programming, and its schedule-whether showing European movies, or serious drama, or biographies of historical figures-is comparable to anything PBS can offer. Another cable channel, Bravo, features drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill, film from Olivier to Bufiuel, and music from Monteverdi to Messiaen. The Discovery channel now repeats the nature shows that made PBS’s early career, while C-Span provides ’round-the-clock political interviews and discussions at the most serious level, including live sessions of Congress, and political conventions and meetings. The one PBS feature that these channels do not offer is the monotonous diet of left-wing politics.
But if left-wing politics is PBS’s ill-conceived solution to its identity crisis, it is also in the last analysis the key to its financial unease. For as the country has become more conservative, PBS’s radical posture has alienated a major part of public television’s audience of supporters as well as its Republican constituency in Congress. Indeed, it is only because Congress has remained stubbornly Democratic against the conservative tide that public television is not in even deeper financial trouble. But the current situation is inherently unstable and will remain so as long as public television fails to live up to its statutory mandate by presenting a fair balance of views reflecting the broad interests of the population that is being taxed to help support it.
*The other five G-7 stations are WETA (Washington, D.C.), WTTW (Chicago), WQED (Pittsburgh), KCET (Los Angeles), and KQED (San Francisco).
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