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They’re empire builders, in their own way

Times Staff Writer

In tonight’s opening installment of “They Made America,” a worshipful look at American entrepreneurs, enterprising immigrants and business tycoons, author Harold Evans rhapsodizes on hip-hop maestro Russell Simmons. Simmons, Evans tells us, produced the “browning of America” with the result that “the culture that was born in the ghetto became universal.”

With that, the British-born Evans seemingly dismisses a century’s worth of influence that black music had on white America long before Simmons created Def Jam records.

Someone should have told him: “Psst, Harold. Black jazz begat bebop, which begat the beatniks, who begat the hippies, who begat the ‘60s counterculture, and on and on.”

It’s a problem throughout the four-hour, three-part PBS series: overstatement. Evans, executive producer of the series and author of the book “They Made America,” has committed a cardinal sin of journalism: He has fallen in love with his subjects.

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“They Made America” is the work of veteran producers from PBS’ “American Experience.” But in tone it has less in common with that acclaimed series than with an older form: those long-ago books for “young readers” that lionized great inventors, great presidents and so on.

Tonight’s subjects are Simmons and Ted Turner.

“I used to tell people I wanted to get to the top, and I didn’t know where the top was,” Turner says. He is by turns irrepressible and tiresome.

Turner’s brainchild, CNN, came of age on Jan. 16, 1991, when the U.S. began bombing Baghdad and CNN had the only TV reporters able to broadcast live from Saddam Hussein’s hermit kingdom.

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But some context might have helped. Turner, we are told, “brought the world closer together.”

Yes, but is that a good thing? Are we better served by the unblinking, unthinking ethos of right here, right now?

“They Made America” is better when relating the stories of lesser-known historical figures. With these people from the past, the love-letter approach is less grating.

Next week’s installment focuses on A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy, which morphed into the Bank of America. After earthquake and fire destroyed much of San Francisco, Giannini responded by expanding his revolutionary idea of a bank for working-class immigrant families.

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By 1927, Giannini had 300 branches throughout California and was flush enough to help finance the Golden Gate Bridge. True, the story glosses over incidents of Giannini’s ruthlessness. But in the main the story is done briskly and with nice visuals.

Ditto for the tales of General Electric founder Samuel Insull and of Ida and William Rosenthal, Russian immigrants who founded the Maidenform empire.

With these less celebrated figures, a peppy primer is enough. Banks, bras and electric lights. Who knew the American ingenuity that created them?

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‘They Made America’

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10 tonight

David Ogden Stiers Narrator

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Executive producer Sarah Frank


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