In This Issue
Reporting the War on FMLN Terms; NewsBites: Bias Realized; Revolving Door: Taking on a New Project; Renouncing the Reagan Decade; More Moyers; Janet Cooke Award: PBS: America's Century
Reporting the War on FMLN Terms
Consider this Latin American scenario: a democratically elected government comes under attack from a band of terrorists. The government, elected six months earlier, had won in a landslide with a higher turnout than in any national election in the U.S. over the last 20 years. The terrorists, who assassinated at least eight mayors and threatened to murder anyone who dared to vote, carried less than 4 percent of the electorate. The election was certified by international observers as one of the freest and fairest in the history of the region.
Having lost this test of the people's support, the terrorists now try to shoot their way to power. They have invaded neighborhoods in the capital city, where they hide behind innocent civilians, and then cynically blame the government's army for civilian deaths.
Does this version of events sound familiar? If not, you've probably been relying on major media sources for your news from the war in El Salvador. Through the subtle use of labeling and cursory reporting of rebel violence, the media indicted the democratic government as a harsh violator of human rights and softpedaled the terror and violence of the Soviet-backed Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency that would overthrow them.
To study the media's El Salvador coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed all news stories from November 11, when the offensive began, to November 30 in newspapers (The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times), and on the ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC evening news shows. For Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, analysts studied the issues dated November 27, December 4 and 11. Three themes emerged: the media assumed alleged right-wing assassinations were more important than FMLN killings, described the right as "extreme" but not the left, and rarely noted that El Salvador's government was freely elected.
ASSASSINATIONS. Several hundred civilians were killed in the mid-November FMLN offensive, but when six Jesuit priests sympathetic to the communist rebels were murdered a few days into the fighting, their deaths, immediately attributed to "right-wing death squads," quickly became the pivotal event of the unfolding news story. In typical fashion, CBS reporter Juan Vasquez portrayed the priests as martyrs for the right side of history: "The nation's archbishop said the murdered priests' only crime was being on the side of the poor, a central theme of liberation theology." Not one TV reporter bothered to mention that liberation theology is inspired by Marxism. Time's Jill Smolowe found that of all the killings, "Most cold-blooded was the brutal slayings of six Jesuit priests, which seemed to symbolize all that is wrong in El Salvador." To Smolowe, "all that is wrong" are the misdeeds and alleged misdeeds of the right, and not the left.
This concern wasn't extended to the victims of left-wing violence. Only one story (in the Los Angeles Times) mentioned the FMLN's past assassinations of government officials and mayors while the newscasts and front pages were dominated by the Jesuit murders. Not one contrasted the priests' deaths with reports of the hospital raid in Zacatecouluca, where the rebels killed wounded soldiers in their beds, despite Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson's November 17 Senate testimony on the incident.
When former Supreme Court President Francisco Guerrero was assassinated on November 28, the media demonstrated a noticeable lack of outrage. ABC didn't find it important enough to make the evening news. In their reports the next day, none of the three newspapers reported the killing as a part of a continuing FMLN campaign to assassinate prominent government officials and mayors. The only assassination they reported just happened to be the only one the FMLN has admitted, that of Attorney General Alberto Garcia Alvarado. The three newspapers cited an interview with rebel commander Joaquin Villalobos, who said "Because of his defense of death squads, he was a legitimate target." Guerrero's assassination wasn't played much differently than that: The New York Times described the killing with the subheadline: "An official seen by leftists as a barrier to change is gunned down."
LABELS. The media's point of view also came through in the words used to describe the two sides of the war. By employing a standard right-left road map to describe the war, reporters applied labels that implied pluralism within the FMLN where there is none and denied the kinds of clear comparisons (communist vs. anti-communist, democratic vs. anti-democratic) that would give the Cristiani government any form of moral advantage. In the twenty days after the beginning of the guerrilla offensive, reporters never identified the FMLN as "communist." The media's label of choice for the FMLN was "leftist," applied 123 times. That's mild enough to apply to George McGovern or Jesse Jackson. Another label, "Marxist-led," used 20 times, implies that a few Marxists lead some sort of broad-based coalition.
Contrast the labeling of the FMLN with that of El Salvador's right wing. Especially in the aftermath of the Jesuit murders, the media tossed around terms such as "extreme right," the "violent right," the "far right," and "right-wing extremists" 59 times. "Far left" was invoked only twice and no reporter tried "extreme left," "left-wing extremists," or "violent left" to characterize the communist guerrillas. (Although no reporter ever used the word "terrorist" to describe the FMLN, Dan Rather once used the term "rebel terror squads.") Despite assassinations attributed to both sides, a Nexis search of major newspapers and magazines over the last decade found that no reporter has ever used the term "left-wing death squad."
Time was the champion of labeling imbalance: in three weeks of stories, they never labeled the guerrillas. But in its December 11 issue, Washington reporter J.F.O. McAllister wrote that the "ultra-rightists" of the Cristiani government were "betraying distressingly fascist leanings," and concluded that "The future of El Salvador looks to be a free-for-all between a buoyant and rearmed FMLN and generals willing to make the country a boneyard."
DEMOCRACY. The Cristiani government was elected, but reporters ignored this key point. They allowed U.S. officials to state the point on a few occasions, but made it themselves only five times. Major media reporters never referred to the rebels as "anti- democratic," refusing to note the FMLN's so-called "popular movement" got less than 4 percent of the vote. But amazingly, the government was labeled undemocratic. On CBS, Juan Vasquez reported: "In a country where the powerful consider liberation theology a dangerous idea, the priests dared to speak up for social justice and, frequently, against the U.S. policy of supporting a government they saw as undemocratic." NBC's Jim Cummins repeatedly referred to the government as "military- civilian," making no distinction between the current elected government and the junta that took power in 1979.
The tenor of news coverage was best distilled in Time's December 4 issue. "Washington should rethink its relationship with a democratically elected government that cannot control fanatic right-wing elements in the armed forces. El Salvador's armed forces, nourished by American dollars, bear primary responsibility for the country's scandalous human rights record. Washington should cut off military aid unless travesties like the killing of the six Jesuits are stopped."
Wrapped up in its Vietnam-driven suspicion of U.S. foreign policy and the recipients of U.S. aid, the media crossed the line from skepticism to antagonism, refusing to concede that the Cristiani government is the legitimate voice of its people. The recent weeks of war in El Salvador have demonstrated how the media reserved their harshest scrutiny for Cristiani's elected government, repeating the propaganda themes of an under-investigated FMLN that has little regard for Western democratic values.
NewsBites: Bias Realized
BIAS REALIZED. Fewer and fewer Americans believe reporters are fair and balanced. The latest public opinion poll by the Times Mirror Center for People & the Press, released in November, found 68 percent think the media "tend to favor one side" in news "dealing with political and social issues." That's up 11 points from the 1988 survey and 15 points from the first one in 1985.
Asked "to what extent do you see political bias in news coverage?" 76 percent answered "a great deal" or "a fair amount." Even a sizeable minority (42 percent) of the 508 members of the press community polled, which included network executives, managing editors, news directors and reporters, offered the same assessment. Of those members of the media, 10 percent identified the bias as "liberal/left," barely 2 percent as "conservative/right."
PARTY POLITICS. The liberal Children's Defense Fund, the major interest group behind the fashionably federalized Act for Better Child Care (ABC) bill calling for subsidies and regulation of day care, raised $400,000 at an enormously successful fundraiser November 30. Among the media bigwigs who graced the $300-a-ticket bash for babysitting regulations: from CBS, 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley and Sunday Morning host Charles Kuralt; Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham; MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer; Today co-host Jane Pauley; and National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg.
Dan Rather had also agreed to attend, but couldn't make the festivities thanks to the summit in Malta. "Journalists rarely get a chance to express approval of good things," said former U.S. News & World Report Editor Roger Rosenblatt. "It's an opportunity to put our voices behind a good cause."
ADOPTING ONE SIDE. For CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, there's only one side to the adoption-over-abortion debate. On the November 3 Evening News, Stahl reported, "Justice Department lawyers expressed outrage" when the received a memo from the Attorney General "urging them to adopt a child." But if you believe Newsweek's story, "officials say they haven't received any employee complaints about the memo." Moreover, said Newsweek, "Some adoption advocates see the administration's support as a real boost." Stahl didn't bother to mention that.
SAINT GORBACHEV. The recent meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II gave CBS and ABC an opportunity to take moral equivalence to new heights of absurdity. During the November 29 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather declared "This week's meeting of Pope John Paul and Gorbachev brings together two traditional enemies, both of whom have shown, time and again, that they can rise above the hatreds of history." As if that weren't enough, Rather went on to relate, "The meeting, said one priest in Rome, is like the lion lying down with the lamb. But in this case, he said, it's hard to tell who's the lion and who's the lamb."
During the next day's Good Morning America, ABC correspondent Steve Fox noted the similarity of the two men: "The Pope is a tough disciplinarian. He will brook no dissent on doctrinal matters....And if you think about Mr. Gorbachev, he, early in his career, was the head of the KGB." CBS correspondent Barry Petersen continued this line of thought, "I think [Gorbachev's] trying to say to the Pope, listen, communism and Catholicism, we really have a lot in common. Kind of an astonishing thought if you think about it." Kind of a ridiculous thought if you think about it.
MISSING MIKHAIL'S MESSAGE. In the midst of Eastern Europe's turmoil, the national media have largely ignored Gorbachev's defense of communism for his own country. The most egregious example came after the Soviet leader asserted in an extraordinary November 15 speech that "the October Revolution was not a mistake." Gorbachev declared his nation's woes were due to "distortions of socialism" rather than "its very nature and principles."
These telling statements attracted the attention of The Washington Times, which made it the lead story on November 16. But The Washington Post buried the story as a small item on page 44 with only four words from the speech. NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw gave a brief summary. But CNN, CBS, and ABC ignored the speech, while managing to find space on their November 15 newscasts for stories on Ringo Starr, luxury trains, and presidential portraits.
In late November, Gorbachev went even further in a Pravda article. He rejected capitalism for the Soviet Union as "dreaming" and "vigorously defended one-party rule, making it clear he believes the Communist Party will be the force that guides the Soviet Union into the next century," ABC's John McWethy reported on the November 27 World News Tonight. CNN and NBC didn't once mention the article. With so much time devoted to its upbeat "Changing Face of Communism" series, CBS couldn't find time to mention the article.
FAR LEFT FAVORITES. Two regular contributors to the "independent socialist newsweekly" In These Times are popular stringers for the major media. William Gasperini, currently a reporter for CBS Radio, wrote of the Sandinista dictatorship in the July 19 issue: "Made by men and women of socialist inspiration, Central America's first revolution has consistently found its road blocked by the geopolitical realities of the '80s...But the biggest roadblock has been the destructive hostility of a U.S. government never tolerant of change that threatens Washington's control of Latin America." Gasperini has also reported for UPI, U.S. News & World Report, The Christian Science Monitor, Macleans, and the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter.
Chris Norton, in addition to his writings for In These Times and the pro-Castro North American Congress on Latin America's Report on the Americas, has been a stringer for The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday, and twice this year contributed to Time. While The Nation's Alexander Cockburn found liberal reporters James LeMoyne and Lindsey Gruson of The New York Times and Charles Lane of Newsweek too reminiscent of the "consonance" between Reaganism and the major media, Cockburn has praised Norton twice this year as one reporter who "has provided fine reports."
RAY'S RECESSION REFRAIN. CBS News business reporter Ray Brady has been urging on a recession for years, and he hasn't stopped yet. On December 8, the Labor Department reported a 0.1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, which has hovered between 4.9 percent and 5.4 percent for the past year. He found two economic "experts" to say this "confirms that the U.S. economy has slowed," and "the economy is in a mini-recession."
Of course, there's another side to the story. The same night NBC's Irving R. Levine reported that the low jobless rate means more opportunities for urban workers, who can make good wages for unskilled work in the suburbs.
But Brady missed that. His CBS report featured a Boston unemployment line, where out-of-work computer technicians said "they'll keep writing resumes, hoping that despite today's jobless figures, they'll somehow land a job." They needn't have worried about the "jobless figures," since the unemployment rate in Massachusetts declined in November. If Brady keeps predicting a recession, someday he may actually be right.
CLAPPING FOR CANADA. NBC, which won the June Janet Cooke Award for a favorable story on Canada's socialized medical system, has once again hopped on that bandwagon. On the October 30 Today, reporter Henry Champ compared Canadian and American health care. Anchor Bryant Gumbel set the tone, introducing the piece by declaring: "America's system is in trouble. The cost of medical coverage is skyrocketing. 37 million Americans have no coverage of any kind, and the most needy seem to get the least care."
Champ began by claiming that in Canada "you can afford to get sick...Canada's health system is universal and free." He later dismissed detractors' arguments about the low quality of care north of the border, saying "all vital statistics show Canadians enjoy longer life and lower infant mortality than Americans." He chose to ignore demographic and social factors that might better explain those statistics. Champ alluded to the long delays: "It really does operate on the principle: the farm laborer and the banker are the same. The flipside is both have to wait as long." But Champ neglected to mention that the undesired delays in diagnosis and surgery are at best just unsound medical care, at worst fatal.
Keeping up his campaign, Champ concluded a November 26 Sunday Today story, "there is a cry in the land for some sort of attention toward a national health plan."
TARNISHED TERENCE. CBS reporter Terence Smith made his feelings about former Presidents Carter and Reagan clear in a November 5 New York Times op-ed. Smith conceded that "the majority of Americans still regard Jimmy Carter as a failed President" and that "Ronald Reagan...left office at the pinnacle of his popularity."
"But history is a harsher judge," Smith asserted. "Historians will note, for example, that it was Jimmy Carter who focused the nation's attention on the need for energy conservation and defined human rights as a legitimate consideration in foreign policy." And what of Reagan's legacy? "Fundamental management was abandoned in favor of rhetoric and imagery. A cynical disregard for the art of government led to wide-scale abuse. Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan's laissez-faire: the crisis in the savings and loan industry, the scandal in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the deterioration of the nation's nuclear weapon's facilities, the dangerous state of the air traffic control system -- not to mention the staggering deficit. The neglect was pernicious, not benign."
Smith's "suspicion is that hard-headed historical review, when it is finally done, will enhance the image of the man from Plains, and tarnish that of the squire of Bel Air." MediaWatch's suspicion is that Smith's claim to objectivity as a reporter is what's been tarnished.
TED WAVES HIS POM-POMS. Owning a network has its advantages. Take CNN's recent special presentation of Ted Turner's November 16 interview with former President Jimmy Carter. Turner, the would- be-journalist, dismissed all pretense of objectivity with his introduction about ex-Presidents.
"Well, if you're Ronald Reagan, you might be traveling on a lucrative lecture circuit, earning a few million dollars. Or if you're Gerald Ford, there's a good chance you could be found perfecting your putt on the golf course...But if you're Jimmy Carter, there's no telling where you could be found. The President is just as comfortable slinging a hammer in the South Bronx, or prowling the streets in Panama looking for election fraud. In fact, since Carter left office in 1981, he's mediated high-level negotiations in China and taught African farmers to grow better crops."
Turner allowed Carter to do the great majority of the talking on the hour-long show. But in between Carter's commentary on current events, the CNN boss turned cheerleader. On Carter's recent peace efforts in Ethiopia, Turner gushed, "that's really terrific," and on the Carter Center, "terrific." When the ex-President applauded Gorbachev and urged more American help for him, Turner sounded like Carter's potential running mate: "Well, I couldn't agree with you more." Finally, when the last Democrat to live in the White House spoke of his upcoming role in monitoring the Nicaragua elections, we were treated to, "This sounds terrific, it really does."
Revolving Door: Taking on a New Project
Taking on a New Project. Liz Galtney, a reporter in the now defunct U.S. News & World Report investigative unit, is the new Director of the Project on Military Procurement (PMP). Galtney joined U.S. News in mid-1988 after several years with UPI in Austin, Texas. Founded in 1981 by Dina Rasor, an ABC News Washington bureau editorial assistant in 1978-79, PMP is funded by the liberal Fund for Constitutional Government. "I find weapons repulsive," Rasor told the Christian Science Monitor in 1982.
Switching to City Hall. December 8 was Albert Scardino's last day as a New York Times "Business Day" section reporter covering magazine publishing. On January 2, after a few weeks of vacation, he begins work as Press Secretary to New York City's newly elected Mayor, liberal Democrat David Dinkins. The New York Post reported that Scardino, who began his reporting career with the Associated Press in the early 1970's, participated in a "brainstorming session" with Dinkins in July.
Times Change. Since 1983 Jack Burby has served as Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Los Angeles Times. In November, the Press Secretary to former California Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, switched jobs with editorial writer Frank del Olmo. After Ronald Reagan beat Brown in 1966, Burby moved to Washington to become a special assistant to Alan Boyd, the first Secretary of Transportation in the department created by President Johnson. Before jumping into politics, Burby was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Advertiser and United Press International.
Bush's Democratic Choice. President Bush's choice to fill a Federal Communication Commissioner slot reserved for a Democrat, Ervin S. Duggan, reported metro and feature pieces for The Washington Post in 1964 and 1965 according to Washington's City Paper. Duggan has also served as a special assistant to Senator Adlai Stevenson from 1971 to 1977 when he began writing speeches for HEW Secretary Joseph Califano. From 1979 until Carter left office Duggan worked in the State Department policy planning office.
The White Stuff. John C. White, Press Secretary to District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry from May 1987 until he grew tired of denying allegations of Barry's cocaine use in September of this year, has signed on with Washington's ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV, as Director of Investigations. White came to D.C. from City Hall reporting for the Philadelphia Daily News. He previously held reporting jobs with the Chicago Tribune, Washington Star and Baltimore Evening Sun.
Time Serves Presidents. Henry Anatole Grunwald, Editor in Chief of all Time Inc. magazines from 1979 until his late 1987 ambassadorial appointment by President Reagan, resigned as U.S. Ambassador to Austria as of January 1. At Time, he succeeded Hedley Donovan, who left the publishing conglomerate after 15 years to become a Senior Adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
Renouncing the Reagan Decade
Many will remember the 1980's as a decade of American renewal sparked by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was marked by a renewal of prosperity, with the creation of more than 17 million new jobs, and a renewal of generosity, as charitable giving more than doubled to over $100 billion in 1988. But history is in the eye of the beholder, and in the journalist's corner, where the first drafts of history are written daily, the Reagan era symbolized nothing but greed, sleaze and decline.
CBS This Morning began a week-long series on the coming decade with a look back. "The 1980's," co-host Kathleen Sullivan intoned on November 13, was "a decade dominated, in politics and in style, by the Reagans...While the wealthy got most of the attention, those who needed it most were often ignored. More homeless, less spending on housing. The gap between the top and the bottom grew in the '80's....The AIDS crisis began in the '80's. Some say the decade's compassion gap made it worse." Among those used on camera to support Sullivan's thesis was Time Senior Writer Walter Shapiro.
Born in the 1980's, USA Today might have been kinder, but instead featured a front-page analysis from Debbie Howlett on November 27: "The '80s were the years of excess. We swaggered through the portals and grabbed as much as we could. We were greedy and gluttonous. As long as we wore starched shirts, we could belch at the dinner table. And Ronald Reagan led us."
USA Today's eternal "we" only applied to liberals. "We joined Greenpeace and MADD." ("We" did?) "Our heroes were figments: E.T., Batman, Bernhard Goetz. Some real heroes died. John Lennon was shot to death...Abbie Hoffman killed himself with a drug overdose." Howlett also played fast and loose with the sleaze report: "Even our politics were excessive. More than 100 top- level Reagan Administration officials were tainted by illegal and unethical conduct." She ignored the number of officials convicted rather than "tainted" and overlooked Democratic models of ethical purity, such as Jim Wright and Barney Frank, as if they belonged to another decade.
Both saw hope in the post-Reagan 1990's. USA Today's subheadline read: "The decade of the '90s will emerge as a decade when people began to care." Indeed, equating more government spending with a better future, Sullivan predicted, "In the '90s, the situation may improve. By next year, Congress will pass nearly $4 billion in child care subsidies and tax credits."
Taxpayer-supported liberal advocate Bill Moyers was at it again in November in a new four-part series, Bill Moyers: The Public Mind. This latest PBS poutfest was dedicated to the shopworn idea that style and symbolism fooled people into electing Ronald Reagan even though they disagreed with his policies. Repeating the old style-over-substance thesis, Moyers went on to discuss how this meant the "hard reality" of a decaying America was lost in the "illusion" of prosperity.
"Beneath the distortion and deception of life in America today, there is hard reality. Our Earth is threatened with pollution. Nuclear weapons have been accumulating worldwide at a cost of one million dollars a minute. And the United States is sliding into an inferior status in the global economy. Yet our public mind is filled with an America where the vending machines are always full, the wounded always recover, and the bills never come due."
On board to testify for the Moyers theory: a whole roll call of left-wing media critics, including Ben Bagdikian, Stuart Ewen, Todd Gitlin, Mark Crispin Miller, Neil Postman, Herbert Schiller, and Mark Hertsgaard, author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. No right-wing critics got any air time.
This latest Moyers crusade would qualify as classic PBS yawn-a- minute programming if not for the amusing irony of watching a guy who orchestrated LBJ's anti-Goldwater campaign commercials complain about Willie Horton ads.
Janet Cooke Award: PBS: America's Century
When most Americans look back at the last ninety years, they see a period of greatness which could rightly be labeled "America's Century." American soldiers fought in two world wars to preserve freedom, then showered the benefits of our thriving free market on friend and former foe alike to rebuild from the devastation of war. The U.S. fostered democracy and free enterprise around the world, lifting millions from misery and political oppression.
The Soviets, of course, have a radically different view of the 20th Century. America waged imperialist wars in the Third World, oppressed the working class around the world, and ignored the voice of its own people. Americans might not begrudge the Soviets their opinion, but they would be shocked to find those same arguments promoted on public television. But the fact is that America's Century, a PBS series aired in October and November, advocated such opinions with vigor.
Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham, the writer and narrator of the six- part series, lashed out at almost every U.S. foreign policy action and leader since the Spanish-American War. In short, Lapham's America's Century displayed utter contempt for America's role in the world, earning MediaWatch's Janet Cooke Award for December.
Lapham's selection of "experts" for the series was indicative of his perspective. Liberal establishment figures such as George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, and Clark Clifford appeared 41 times in the series and leftist ideologues such as IPS Senior Fellows Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky showed up another 55 times. Soviets and North Vietnamese made nine appearances. However, conservatives such as Caspar Weinberger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Milton Friedman made only 20 appearances. Together, liberals and leftists appeared five times as often as conservatives. Even Alger Hiss served as an expert. Viewers were not informed that he spied for the Soviets.
As radical as Lapham's choice of experts was, what he and his "experts" said was even more disturbing. In the first episode, "Coming of Age," Lapham attacked the rise of "militarism and imperialism" under Teddy Roosevelt. Lapham condemned Roosevelt as "intensely nationalistic," suspecting "that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. He took pleasure in the killing of Spaniards and big game and to a friend he once boasted that he had killed a Spaniard with his bare hands, like a jackrabbit."
"Familiar Enemies," the second show, traced the development of the superpower conflict. "What would we do without the Russians?" Lapham wondered, "Now that the Cold War is over, on whom can we blame our own and the world's unhappiness?" Lapham saw May Day as a "day on which the Soviet Union glories in its own socialist achievement and proclaims the triumph of the working classes... Like the United States, the Soviet Union presented itself as a shining example to oppressed peoples everywhere in the world."
Like other leftists, Lapham blamed the Cold War on the U.S.: "The Americans made a poor beginning of their relations with the new Soviet state. In 1918 they intervened on the wrong side of the revolution." In doing so, "the Americans did nothing except identify themselves as reactionaries and imperialists."
In "The Limits of Power," the third segment, Lapham traced America's slide toward the "national security state." He blamed this development on the National Security Act and the rise of McCarthyism: "As the reasons of state gradually superseded the wishes and interests of the people, the post-war governments came increasingly to rely on the CIA, the doctrines of covert action, and the uses of secrecy."
Lapham eyed every post-war policy with suspicion. Lapham denounced Kennedy's stand during the Cuban Missile Crisis: "On a question of whether a few missiles should be placed on a not very important tropical island, the United States had staked the life of the human race. The risk was taken without the knowledge or consent of the American people and it expressed the arrogance of power."
While Lapham eyed policies such as the Marshall Plan warily, he apologized for Stalin's effort to seize Berlin: "Stalin perceived the rebuilding of Europe as the revival of Germany. The Russian fear of another war with a German enemy prompted Stalin to blockade Berlin in June 1948."
Part four, "Imperial Masquerade," matched its title. Lapham believed involvement in Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam demonstrated American imperialism. For Lapham, "Guatemala was one of the first countries to bear the weight of America's experiment with secret wars. The United States organized a coup d'etat in 1954, as a result of which Guatemala was condemned to 30 years of despotism." The lesson of Guatemala: "The United States, in the name of making the world safe for democracy, had subverted not only a freely elected government, but also its own constitutional principles....The American government was confirmed in its disastrous belief that the cause of liberty could be made to stand on the pedestals of criminal violence."
Lapham had bizarre recollections of the Bay of Pigs. "The lesson implicit in the images was not lost on the peoples of the Third World," Lapham asserted, "America had intervened with force on the side of what it thought was the future. By so doing, it had proved itself the agent of the reactionary past." Leftist linguist Noam Chomsky thought that "right after the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Administration launched what was certainly the world's largest international terrorist operation against Cuba."
Lapham's assessment of Vietnam was even more fantastic. Ho Chi Minh's ideology was "local and expedient, in no way connected to a global conspiracy." Lapham revoked South Vietnam's status as a nation: "By investing the government of South Vietnam with the symbols of democracy and the trappings of legitimate office, the Americans comforted themselves with a catalogue of welcome lies." To Lapham, war protesters were paragons of virtue. Comparing radicals such as Abbie Hoffman to the Founding Fathers, he declared: "On both occasions an aroused people took into its own hands the shaping of its own destiny. On both occasions the Americans voted in favor of their own best hopes."
Part five, "Blowing the Fortune," examined the American economy in the post-war years. Lapham was upset by U.S. aid to Third World countries. George McGovern explained: "We were willing to back almost any scoundrel anywhere around the globe, providing he waved an anti-communist banner." For Lapham, Chiang Kai-Shek was "a retired bandit who had imposed on Taiwan a military despotism" and was an "exemplar of the kind of Third World dictator whom the United States chose to support."
The final segment, "The Next Century," consisted of an hour of attacks on anti-communism and conservatives. Lapham's thesis: The state was withering away, leaving America's leaders scrambling to maintain the Cold War and their grip on the past. Lapham offered an amusing contrast of Presidents Carter and Reagan. "At a time when America doubted its faith in its own virtue," Lapham proclaimed, "Carter offered himself as the candidate chosen by Providence to lead the country back into the paths of righteousness." David Rieff (identified only as a "writer") added, "The malaise speech...was of course as close as any senior public figure has ever come in the last 35 years or so to tell the American people the truth about anything."
Lapham provided a less affectionate assessment of Reagan: "The new President was elected on the promise to make time stand still ...The seeming agelessness of Ronald Reagan, joined with the confidence of his belief in all the American fairy tales, made it possible to imagine that nothing important had changed in the world since the glorious victories of 1945." Lapham compared Reagan to John Wayne, because both somehow could be counted on to "defend the sanctity of myth against the heresy of fact."
To Lapham, Grenada represented one more example of U.S. imperialism: "As a military exercise, the invasion was as clumsy as it was unconstitutional." Walter Russell Mead of the World Policy Institute declared: "The Reagan people seemed to think that American supremacy was like Tinkerbell, that it would live forever if we would all just watch television, clap our hands and believe."
The Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters were, of course, evil incarnate. "For the most part, the Nicaraguan Contras burned villages and murdered civilians. On behalf of their cause, Reagan sold out his oath of office and subverted the Constitution," Lapham asserted. Oliver North served as a symbol of everything Lapham despises: "Oliver North presented himself as the immortal boy in the heroic green uniform of Peter Pan. Although wishing to be seen as a humble patriot, the Colonel's testimony showed him to be a treacherous and lying agent of the national security state, willing to do anything asked of him by a President to whom he granted the powers of an Oriental despot."
Contacted by MediaWatch, Lapham admitted America's Century was "opinion...written as an essay in television documentary form" but insisted that Americans would agree with most of his assessments. Does the public believe that North is "a treacherous lying agent? Lapham asserted: "I think a majority wouldn't take it quite [as far as I did], but I don't think the majority would regard North as a hero in any sense." Do Americans believe Reagan was an "Oriental despot" who "subverted the Constitution?" Lapham claimed: "I still do think he subverted the Constitution and he was a wretched President." Backing off his original claim, Lapham admitted: "That's not the majority opinion."
Strangely, Lapham said he views himself as "some form of a conservative" and maintained that "public television tends to be predominantly more right than left." But he admitted America's Century "tends to the left" of the political spectrum. PBS Director of National Press Relations Mary Jane McKinven told MediaWatch that Lapham's description of the series as an "essay" was "[PBS'] conception of it as well." McKinven, however, rejected the writer's ideological assessment: "It's not our business to label our programs like that. Over the wide range and scheme of things, we have exhibited balance in programming."
Lapham freely admitted his production was not balanced, but "left -of-center" opinion. Instead of rejecting ideological labeling, it's time for PBS to inform the viewing public of every production's political agenda.
Series sponsor DHL Worldwide Express stands by America's Century. Manager of Public Relations Dean Christon declared: "I think generally speaking we're happy with it."