PBS is broadcasting what amounts to a neoconservative propaganda series entitled “America at a Crossroads,” which has included a full hour info-mercial for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq written and narrated by Richard Perle, one of the war’s architects.
The Perle segment, entitled “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” treated anti-war Americans as deranged individuals. Perle, though known as the “prince of darkness,” spoke in a quiet almost regretful tone, expressing disappointment that “conspiracy theories” and hatred of Bush had blinded so many people to the rightness of the Iraq War.
To show examples of these pathetic anti-war lunatics, the PBS program included short clips of actors Martin Sheen and Tim Robbins while Perle did a voice-over that talked about them like a psychiatrist who sadly saw no choice but to sign commitment papers.
The implication of the PBS program was that there was only one reasonable and moral conclusion, which was to support President Bush wholeheartedly in his invasion of Iraq and his conduct of the “war on terror.”
PBS officials also have declared that they see no reason to give a similar length of time to opponents of the Iraq War. Indeed, Jeff Bieber, an executive producer at PBS’s Washington affiliate WETA, endorsed the right-wing bias of “The Case for War” as an opportunity for PBS to “showcase a conservative viewpoint.”
Beyond the journalistic violation represented in such an acknowledged bias, the history of the series reveals a willingness of PBS to transform itself into a compliant propaganda organ for the Bush administration and the congressional Republicans.
PBS’s parent, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, commissioned the neoconservative series a couple of years ago when the Republicans controlled all branches of the U.S. government and the Bush administration dominated the information reaching the American people, from Fox News to the New York Times.
So, instead of offering an outlet for the widely ignored Americans who questioned Bush’s Iraq invasion, PBS chose to go with the flow and join with the powers-that-be in taking cheap shots at war critics.
“America at a Crossroads” was financed directly by CPB, a quasi-public institution which used both tax dollars and contributions from “viewers like you” to pay for the avowedly pro-Bush series.
The original idea was to air “America at a Crossroads” before Election 2006, possibly around the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, all the better to help ensure continued Republican one-party control of the federal government.
But production delays and internal PBS disputes pushed the broadcast date back to April 2007. Now, the series is helping energize Bush’s supporters to fight Democratic proposals for setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Decline of PBS
PBS has been sinking into this pattern of corrupt behavior for years, especially after the Right took aim at public broadcasting in the 1980s and early 1990s. CPB was intended to insulate PBS from political pressure, but the Reagan administration began a systematic process of salting the board with partisan Republicans and neocon ideologues.
By reshaping the CPB board, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush turned CPB from its original purpose as a shield to defend professionalism at PBS into a weapon for breaking down the network’s editorial independence. Simultaneously well-funded right-wing pressure groups went after individual PBS journalists and programs.
When I worked for the PBS documentary series “Frontline” in the early 1990s, I saw this process first-hand, as CPB and PBS increasingly bent to Republican pressure. At one PBS conference, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan gave a keynote speech trashing “Frontline” – and few PBS executives dared come to the program’s defense.
After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and targeted PBS funding, the network twisted itself more to the Right, hoping to appease the angry Republicans by adding more and more conservative content while taking for granted the bedrock support of the Democrats and liberals.
This PBS dynamic had become second nature by the second Bush administration – and grew more entrenched after 2002 when Republicans gained control of all branches of the federal government. The few PBS holdouts, like Bill Moyers, were soon isolated and pushed toward the door.
Even when the invasion of Iraq turned sour and more prominent Americans began to speak up, CPB and PBS knew to rush to Bush’s defense. To correct for supposed “liberal bias,” CPB ordered up and funded the “America at a Crossroads” series.
In that sense, “America at a Crossroads” – and especially Perle’s “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom” segment – has the look of Pravda during the Soviet era when the Russian people could learn what dissidents had to say mostly by reading between the lines of Pravda denouncing them.
The Perle-narrated program – and PBS’s disdain for the idea of giving equal time to the other side – had that kind of feel to it.
The likes of Martin Sheen and Tim Robbins were held up as enemies of the state, either disloyal or crazy. However, Perle still managed to present himself as the victim, noting that Robbins had written a play in which a character modeled after Perle was the bad guy.
Perle also offered an uncontested neocon narrative of recent American history. In Perle’s narrative, liberals and other weak-minded people believed that the Soviet Union was invincible until Ronald Reagan told Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” and the Soviet empire collapsed.
After the program aired on April 17, I got a call from a former CIA analyst who was stunned by both the sophomoric quality of Perle’s narrative and PBS’s willingness to put such nonsense on its network. The ex-analyst noted that Perle was one of the hardliners who had opposed Reagan’s arms-control talks with Gorbachev near the end of Reagan’s term.
Beyond that, a true historical narrative would have shown that CIA analysts were aware of the disintegrating Soviet empire by the early-to-mid-1970s, but they were challenged and bureaucratically defeated by the neocons who argued that the Soviet Union was on the rise both economically and militarily, thus justifying bigger U.S. military budgets.
The neocon-led politicization of the CIA during the Reagan years resulted in the purging of the CIA’s top Soviet specialists and thus the silencing of dissent against the neocon alarmist view of expanding Soviet power.
The politicization caused the CIA to “miss” the Soviet collapse in the late 1980s. Ironically, the neocons then ridiculed the CIA’s analytical division and claimed credit for the “unexpected” demise of the Soviet Union. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
But the question now is what to do about PBS.
Why should American liberals and the Democratic Party continue to support an entity that has surrendered its journalistic principles and treats as crazy the two-thirds of the public that now opposes Bush’s Iraq War?
There might have been an argument for supporting PBS news programs if they could be protected from government financial pressure. But once the Republicans learned that they could wrest journalistic concessions from PBS by threatening its money, PBS changed unavoidably into a government propaganda agency.
During the unified Republican control of the federal government from 2003 to 2006, that PBS reality solidified, best represented today by the “America at a Crossroads” series. PBS is still responding to its Republican masters even though they no longer control Congress.
Given the 3,300 dead American soldiers and the widespread recognition that the Iraq War has been a disaster, what should be said about a corrupt and propagandistic entity like PBS that still is willing to carry water even if its timing is a little off?
What should be done with a news outlet that has demonstrated that it will sell its journalistic integrity for money?
One possibility is for PBS contributors to express their disgust by either cutting off donations or at least demanding back a percentage of what they’ve already given. At least that might show CPB board members and PBS executives that there is a price to pay for selling out journalistic principles.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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