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MediaWatch: December 1989

Vol. Three No. 12

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."