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PBS VIETNAM SERIES STIRS REACTION

Times Staff Writer

One-and-a-half years after airing its award-winning 13-part series, “Vietnam: A Television History,” the Public Broadcasting Service is taking a long, hard look at that encyclopedic opus. And in doing so, it has sparked controversy within its own ranks and drawn fire from television critics gathered here.

The subject of concern is a two-hour program, “Vietnam Op Ed: An Inside Story Special,” which will include in its entirety a one-hour film by the politically conservative Accuracy in Media group rebutting the 1983 Vietnam series. Still in production, the special is set to air June 26.

At WGBH-TV in Boston, producers of “Vietnam: A Television History,” at first refused to cooperate with the rebuttal show. Some members of the PBS programming staff were “appalled” over the approval of “Vietnam Op Ed,” said PBS Senior Vice President Suzanne Weil. And the TV critics, assembled at the Arizona Biltmore hotel Sunday for a four-day preview of upcoming PBS fare, challenged the legitimacy of a program built around the work of a politically motivated group such as AIM.

But Ned Schnurman, former producer of the network’s defunct “Inside Story” series who was brought back for this assignment, believes in the project. “PBS can really lead the way for television if it finds a way for audience response to get on (the air),” Schnurman told the critics.

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PBS President Bruce Christensen agreed, saying that “Vietnam Op Ed’s” examination “of this particular issue is a positive thing.”

At a press function designed largely to hype new shows--one that will be followed by similar events hosted by the three commercial networks--PBS’ self-analysis stood in contrast to video clips and speeches about ancient Incan wheat and the history of musical comedy.

“Vietnam Op Ed” is, in fact, similar in spirit to “Inside Story,” which for four seasons examined the media’s handling of major weekly news stories. The show will present opposing viewpoints, interviews with various experts and address the general issue of press responsibility.

But the use of the AIM film as its focus sets it apart.

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AIM, a self-proclaimed media watchdog, was among those critics asserting that the WGBH-produced series presented a too-favorable view of the North Vietnamese.

The AIM production, titled “Vietnam: The Real Story” and narrated by Charlton Heston, was commissioned by the group specifically to rebut “Vietnam: A Television History.” PBS asked AIM to delete four direct accusations of deliberate distortion on the part of the WGBH producers, which it did.

Peter Rollins, producer of “Vietnam: The Real Story,” had no prior credits in documentary production, said Barry Chase, PBS vice president for news and public-affairs programming. Further, both Schnurman and the series production team at WGBH--which compiled a 43-page analysis of the AIM presentation--say that AIM presents some factual information but mostly value judgments and unsubstantiated assertions.

Why, then, “Vietnam Op Ed’s” detractors have asked, should a two-hour special be built around the AIM film? And does it set a precedent, as one TV critic suggested, for, say, a fundamentalist religious group rebutting on the air PBS’ upcoming “Creation of the Universe” series?

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Chase said that he and his staff asked themselves that question many times before deciding that “it is important to have a broad range of views and allow viewers to make up their own minds,” adding that he would not rule out shows focusing on similar analyses of the “process” of news gathering.

In this case, PBS clearly stands by its earlier production. Chase noted that “Vietnam: A Television History” won six national Emmys and “was richly deserving of that praise.” Schnurman added that he would “certainly put a scalpel” to AIM’s loose mix of politics and fact.

But Schnurman also was visibly irritated when he spoke of WGBH producers’ initial unwillingness to cooperate with the current project. “If Boston just hoped that this project would go away, they were wrong,” he said. “And if they thought that by not participating they would make it go away, they don’t know journalism.”

In the end, the controversy just may work in PBS’ favor.

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“If everything we did got people’s juices going and talking this much, that would be a wonderful goal,” said Weil, who along with Chase, gave the go-ahead for the show. “I wish we had one of these every week--a program that captured the imagination and made people think or argue.”

PBS president Christensen said he was hopeful that “Vietnam Op Ed: An Inside Story Special” would attract the attention of the major underwriter needed to bring “Inside Story” back on a regular basis.

“It feels very good being in harness again,” Schnurman said. “And I don’t mind a bit being in the eye of the storm, which is where a program like this belongs.”


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