PBS SERIES ON VIETNAM DRAWS FIRE
A new documentary that attacks the motives and conclusions of the producers of an award-winning historical series on Vietnam was branded Friday as “a piece of vicious, intellectual vandalism” by an executive connected with the Public Broadcasting Service series.
“It’s an obvious smear; it was a bad idea to put it on the air in any form, and it sets a terrible precedent for PBS, because it means we now no longer have a standard to appeal to,” said Peter McGhee, program manager for national productions at Boston’s WGBH-TV, the station that produced “Vietnam: A Television History.”
McGhee, the series producers and the news media got their first look Thursday at the controversial documentary that was produced by a conservative organization in response to the 1983 series, which won six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and a Columbia/DuPont Journalism Award.
The 57-minute film, “Vietnam: The Real Story,” is narrated by Charlton Heston and was produced by Accuracy in Media. It has been packaged by PBS in a two-hour program, “Vietnam: Op/Ed--An Inside Story Special,” that will air on most public TV stations Wednesday.
The film, which is introduced in the two-hour special by a summary of events leading to the current controversy, contains charge after charge of “serious errors and distortions” in the Vietnam series.
By repeatedly stating that the PBS series portrayed Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese communists as “heroes” and the United States and South Vietnamese as “villains,” the AIM film calls into question the patriotism of PBS and the series producers.
It also advocates U. S. aid to anti-communist forces in Central America, along the lines of well-established Reagan Administration policies, and links the troubles in that region to Vietnam.
The overall implication of the film is that the Vietnam war was lost in large part because of the positions taken by the American news media--the same positions, according to AIM, that the PBS Vietnam series took.
“What we most feared would happen, has happened,” McGhee said by phone from Boston. “We have cooperated in the release of a piece of vicious, intellectual vandalism that is only blunted by putting it in the context of the ‘Inside Story’ special.”
In recent weeks, questions have been raised within public broadcasting circles and the news media about whether political pressures prompted the decision to air the AIM program, and these questions were raised again at a news conference following a screening Thursday at PBS’ New York headquarters.
“Frankly, I resent the questions,” said Suzanne Weil, PBS vice president for national programming, pointing out that PBS has in the past aired controversial points of view that reach across the political spectrum.
“We have been looking for an opportunity such as this, that would enable us to air responses to our programs,” said Barry Chase, PBS vice president for news and public affairs. He charged that the news media was fanning the current controversy because “it makes a sexy story.”
Chase, who previously has acknowledged that the AIM film is “below our standards,” stressed that the film was being broadcast in the context of the two-hour special, produced at a cost to PBS of $139,000 by independent producer Ned Schnurman.
The “Inside Story” special concludes with an “unedited” discussion among a panel that includes Chase; Reed Irvine, AIM’s principal spokesman; Lawrence W. Lichty, director of media research for the PBS Vietnam series, and Richard Salant, former president of CBS News.
During the critique, “Inside Story” producers site “specific errors of fact, and other statements (in the AIM film) that cannot be proven,” but they also generally support AIM’s claim that the PBS series gave South Vietnamese refugees and their point of view on the war “short shrift.”
McGhee contended that the critique is “too short on time and resources” to deal adequately with all of AIM’s charges.
The AIM film was financed in part by an “emergency grant” of $30,000 from William Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bennett, who has since been appointed Secretary of Education, has acknowledged that he made the grant from an emergency fund he controlled without having to go through the endowment’s usual funding process.
It was an NEH grant of $1.2 million, made before Bennett’s term at the endowment, that funded a large portion of the Vietnam PBS series.