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The Ombudsman Column

Turmoil Over 'Turmoil'

The e-mails, several hundred of them, began pouring into my mailbox early Monday evening. They began very soon after the media watch group known as FAIR — for Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting and which describes itself as "progressive" in approach — took issue with a new three-part, three-hour PBS series about former Reagan-era Secretary of State George P. Shultz. As is frequently the case when FAIR gets something in its crosshairs, it tells its subscribers where to complain.

The series, "Turmoil and Triumph: The George Shultz Years," was produced for PBS by Free to Choose Media based in Erie, Pa., a "not-for-profit production company that focuses on issues of personal, economic and political freedom," according to its promotional material.

The series had not even started when FAIR put out its assessment. The first part aired later that evening on many, but not all, PBS member stations. Interestingly, none of the three stations serving the big Washington, D.C., metro area showed the film at that time. The FAIR assessment, however, was based largely on a number of pre-broadcast reviews of the series, especially one in The New York Times on July 12, plus excerpts from other ones in The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and from The Nation magazine.

Once the first part of the series was broadcast, a smaller number of e-mails arrived, raising challenges that were informed by the actual broadcast. But clearly the overwhelming number of complaints I received were from those who had not seen the broadcast and were clearly cruising on what had been reported by FAIR. Normally, that is not a great idea.

Links to the Subject

But in this case, what was at the core of this pre-broadcast challenge to PBS was that some of the funding for this series came from foundations and individuals with clear links to Shultz's other life in the corporate world. So I think those who wrote to challenge this project even before they saw it make a fair point, no pun intended.

It is a point that I agree with. PBS clearly disagrees and offers a response to critics that is posted farther down in this column. And, David deVries, the producer-writer-director of the project offers a strong rebuttal "to the sneering, scurrilous accusations of prejudice and partiality about the shows" made by Greg Mitchell in The Nation and FAIR. That is also posted below. DeVries makes another point: That the overall positive tone was arrived at through his own research and that he had legitimately come to believe that Shultz has been a fine and dedicated public servant.

This series, for me, as a viewer and an ombudsman, created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest; a portrait so glowing that it overwhelms whatever modestly critical elements are included, that does not easily fit the designation one usually associates with a documentary, and that is indeed funded in part by associates of the subject. It doesn't mean that funders exerted any editorial influence, but it left me feeling they didn't have to.

A few days later, Peter Sussman wrote on behalf of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists to say they were "troubled" by the FAIR disclosures "suggesting serious conflicts of interest in the funding and editorial perspective" of the program. "What makes FAIR's charges most disturbing, if they are accurate, is that the content of the series seems to align so completely with the presumed interests of the primary funders, both of which have direct ties to the subject of the series. Stated another way — again, if the charges are accurate — the funders literally got what they appear to have paid for, in editorial content."

More Than Just a Funding Problem

I have viewed recordings of all three programs (which are scheduled to air on many stations on consecutive Mondays) in order to assess the pre-broadcast comments. When my viewing was over, it was more than just the funding, which I'll get to, that bothered me.

First, let me say there is a fair amount of excellent material in this series. Shultz was President Reagan's secretary of state from 1982 to 1989 and his tenure includes many dramatic and controversial episodes in the history of that time, from wars in the Middle East and Central America to the Iran-Contra scandal, upheaval in the Philippines and the emergence in Moscow of Mikhail Gorbachev in what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

Then there is Shultz, now nearing 90, who probably has one of the great resumes of his time: Princeton grad and varsity football player, Marine Corps combat vet in WWII, doctorate in economics from MIT, dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, secretary of labor, budget office chief and then treasury secretary in the Nixon administration, president of the huge Bechtel Corporation for nine years, and then that second tour in government for Reagan.

'An Able Steward'

In what I thought was the review that best captured the ambivalence I felt about this series, Alessandra Stanley, writing in the Times, says there is not "anything wrong with honoring Mr. Shultz. He was an able steward of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy, a steady voice of reason in a White House often embroiled in ideological sniping." And, she adds, "It can be argued that Mr. Shultz was one of the best — and least controversial — secretaries of state since George C. Marshall," who served from 1947-49.

As a reporter at The Washington Post, I covered a lot of what Shultz was engaged in and I think it is fair to say that during the Reagan years he was viewed, by many reporters and probably the president, as perhaps the most well-prepared, wisest and most open-minded within an often contentious cabinet.

At three hours, this series also feels way too long. As Stanley points out, "The Titanic took less time to sink (2 hours and 40 minutes)."

But mostly this film is over-the-top, in my view, with praise but with relatively little critical appraisal of some of the more controversial actions of Shultz's tenure. It seems protective and goes so far as to have the unseen narrator say at one point, in the aftermath of the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 servicemen, that "although George Shultz has been instrumental in sending American forces to Beirut, he has had nothing to do with tying them down to an exposed position that was difficult to defend."

Richard Reeves notes in his book "President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination" that former President Nixon regularly advised Reagan on foreign affairs, and that "there was a bad word" from Nixon at the time of Shultz's appointment. "Beware of Shultz. If things go wrong, he wasn't part of it or never knew about it."

Iraq Didn't Figure

The series is focused on the Reagan years but tells a life story. Yet it leaves out Shultz's strong, post-administration support for the invasion of Iraq. "There is no mention that Mr. Shultz was a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq," Stanley writes, "while still on the board of Bechtel, a construction and engineering firm that won huge contracts that were later criticized by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction." Shultz was also chairman of a special "Committee for the Liberation of Iraq" assembled by President George W. Bush. I think, for the sake of credibility, some time should have been devoted to this in a three-hour film. Shultz's position as a respected elder statesman made his support for the invasion important.

The San Francisco Chronicle reviewer, in an otherwise positive review, describes the series as "a three-part hagiography," meaning a worshipful or idealizing biography. The Times calls it "a generous tribute but it feels more like an encomium (a victory speech) than a history lesson." The Wall Street Journal describes the on-camera commentators as "an exceptionally enthusiastic lot even by the prevailing standards for testimonials of this sort." Washingtonian.com calls it "rather rosy."

I found the deification of Shultz to be unnecessary. I felt that it actually distracted from the story line and somehow diminished him because it was so excessive. I actually felt a bit embarrassed for Shultz, who always had a modest way about him. But that wasn't the case. In an unusual interview with The New York Times Sunday Magazine on July 4, reporter Deborah Solomon described the still forthcoming documentary as "very positive." And Shultz said, "Yes it is. I'm not complaining. I'm flattered." Solomon then said: "I am surprised it's being shown on PBS. Do you think they're trying to appeal to Republicans?" Shultz replied: "I don't think it's a partisan thing at all."

The Funders

Among the funders was the Stephen Bechtel Fund, an arm of the firm that Shultz once headed and also served on the board of directors. Then there was Charles Schwab, founder of the very well known investment firm where Shultz had served as a board member. And there was Peter G. Peterson, the prominent businessman and fiscal conservative who was a Nixon administration cabinet colleague of Shultz's and whose wife, as Stanley points out, is a founder of the Children's Television Workshop, which is linked to PBS.

FAIR is also troubled by these connections, and also tells its members that "the political slant of the film is not a surprise. The company that produced it, Free to Choose Media, has had a hand in several conservative-oriented programs that have aired on public television, including 1980's 'Free to Choose,' a special PBS series celebrating conservative economist Milton Friedman." Writing in The Nation, Greg Mitchell, former editor of Editor & Publisher magazine, also calls attention to the producers and their early backing from conservative foundations.

The Friedman series, however, was a response, in part, to the widely viewed 1977 BBC series "The Age of Uncertainty," which PBS had a hand in, by famed Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. So one could argue that the public was better off with these competing and respected views, although the series on Galbraith was produced clearly by a journalistic enterprise, the BBC. I don't have a problem with liberal or conservative-leaning producers competing for time on public TV, provided PBS programming officials take steps to "guard against the public perception that editorial control might have been exercised by program funders," as PBS's own funding standards and practices require.

Oh, That Test!

Those PBS rules about what is called the "Perception Test" go on to say: "In general, the perception test will be applied most vigorously to current affairs programs and programs that address controversial issues. In these cases, when there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder's actual compliance with the editorial control provision of this policy."

But as I've said before, like a lot of PBS rules, there are exceptions and one of those "that may make the problematic funder acceptable" is if there are "one or more neutral funders." There were other funders of the program, including some prominent California families, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and some former top diplomats.

As a viewer of this admittedly interesting and informative series, what I was left with, nevertheless, was a sense that it had a credibility problem, one that could have been fixed in the telling and in a search for other sponsors. I felt it did not meet PBS's own "perception test" ground rules when one combined the dominant tone of sainthood, the length, the sense that a critical eye was missing, the omissions about Iraq, and those sponsorships that were immediately eye-catching for anyone familiar with this period.

This funding issue has come up a number of times before — and been the subject of earlier ombudsman columns dealing, for example, with documentaries on Las Vegas and on the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. Marine Corps — when viewers have wondered whether they were being spun or propagandized. All of those, and others as well, including Shultz, are worthy subjects but the approach and funding associations diminish credibility.

A Letter

Here's a sample letter from one of those who watched the first part and then wrote:

I watched the first installment of Turmoil and Triumph on July 12 on PBS and I don't think I want to see any more. Although I am interested in that era, the tone of the piece seemed more like one of those infomercials they play at political conventions when they're trying to white-wash a candidate to sound like a hero. Even if George Shultz is a hero, bragging on him in the unabashed way this production does demeans his heroism. Then there is the question of the funding sources for the project, suggesting that Shultz funded the thing himself as a vanity piece. This destroys any integrity he or the "documentary" may have at all. Finally, it makes me question what kind of network PBS is becoming, if a well-positioned man can be presented at the center of such an uncritical piece in his favor, as if he or others connected to him with something at stake in his history can buy a flattering view of themselves in history on what passes for a Public Broadcasting Service. Frankly, I don't understand how you could have presented this piece, given the usual quality of your reporting.

D.D. Delaney

PBS Responds

Soon after the FAIR alert to its subscribers and the e-mails began arriving, and after viewing the whole series, I asked top PBS programming and communications officials if there were concerns about perceived conflicts of interests and influence because of funders such as the Bechtel Foundation, Charles Schwab and Peter Peterson, and why, as part of Shultz's life after the Reagan administration, there was no mention of his support for the invasion of Iraq and as chairman for the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

Here is their response:

PBS is pleased to include the TURMOIL & TRIUMPH: THE GEORGE SHULTZ YEARS in our schedule and believe it fully meets our standards for editorial integrity.

TURMOIL was produced by Free to Choose Media, an experienced producer that has created several documentaries distributed by PBS. The films offered an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the Reagan administration, and the focus on George Shultz is a new prism through which to view those times.

Extensive interviews with Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; Edward Kennedy, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar; Mikhail Gorbachev and others provide a range of perspectives on a critical period in recent American history.

No PBS funder is permitted to exercise editorial control over content. This is the most important consideration in our underwriting policies. PBS' Program Underwriting Policy staff examined the funding of this program and found that it met our standards due to the fact that:

  • there were a total of 13 funders,
  • no single funder accounted for more than 25% of the budget; and
  • the subject matter of the program focused on Mr. Shultz's tenure as secretary of state under Reagan.

The major foundation funders are the Annenberg Foundation, and the Stephen Bechtel Foundation. It was determined that Shultz's role in the Bechtel Corporation — which is disclosed in the program — did not preclude funding from the related family foundation under the circumstances since subject matter of the program was Shultz's role as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, not his role in the corporation.

In addition, public records for this funder reveal a history of generous support to a wide range of projects and institutions, including grants to the Audubon Society, the National Parks Conservation Association, Purdue and other universities and educational entities, The Exploratorium and other museums as well as the San Francisco Symphony — to name just a few.

We hope that viewers will watch the full series and judge it on its merits.

Producer deVries Responds

I am a freelance producer, writer and director of television documentaries . . . I am writing to respond to the sneering, scurrilous accusations of prejudice and partiality about the shows made by Greg Mitchell in his Nation blog of July 12 and the Fair.Org blog of the same date . . . Neither writer pays much attention to the content and quality of the production (from his article, it would seem Mr. Mitchell didn't even see the show.) Rather, both of these gentlemen are incensed by the politics of the funders for the series and the political point of view of the Executive Producers. Both not only imply but state emphatically that the series has been created by the above sources to utilize a PBS broadcast to present an uncritical promotion piece for George Shultz as well as advance an agenda of Libertarian/Conservative Republican values.

Allow me to say that throughout the almost three years it took me to create the series, I was completely unaware of who the funders were. I did not even know their names until very late in the process when they were listed on the end credits. Obviously, I never heard from them during the course of production. When I took the job, I made it clear to Executive Producers Bob Chitester and Tom Skinner of Free To Choose Media that I had no interest in doing an infomercial for Shultz and wanted no interference to force me to color the presentation of him. I made this demand because I am, in fact, a registered Democrat and because I had no wish to jeopardize my reputation built on forty years of acclaimed work for television sources around the world.

Both Chitester and Skinner were as good as their word. I was never pressured to arrive at preconceived conclusions or to present Shultz's life in a way that would support or positively represent the political values of Free to Choose or the funders. The responses I had from them were limited to structure, editing and other appropriate areas of oversight by any Executive Producer. Both men possess an admirable history of accomplishment with PBS. I know that the funding sources for this series were submitted by Free To Choose well in advance to PBS which approved the list and praised the creative filmmaking of the programs. The attacks by these two blogs keep referring to corporate sponsorship and influence when, in fact, none of the donors are corporations. . .

The overall positive tone of my portrait of George Shultz was arrived at through my own research and an extensive interview process. It is positive because I legitimately came to believe Shultz has been a dedicated public servant and a great Secretary of State. I am accused of presenting an entirely uncritical look at Shultz and the Reagan years. In fact, the programs do challenge Shultz's reasons for not doing more to prevent the illegal support for the Nicaraguan Contras in the 80's and present his failures and well as his triumphs in attempting to mediate the war in Lebanon. It exposes the scheming, mendacious nature of reactionary Conservatives in the Reagan White House and brings into ridicule Reagan's motivation for supporting the Contras. One source says in the program he is confident Reagan knew everything of the illegal support for the Contras. . .

The script was submitted and reviewed by Walter LaFeber, PhD, who made suggestions and approved the accuracy, tone and approach of my script . . . He is a past President of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the Academy of Arts and Science. He is known for the revisionist tone to much of his writings about the Cold War period. He has never discussed it with me, but I would also guess he is a Democrat. I consider him to have been an ideal advisor. In addition, there were informal conversations with other historians, respected journalists and career diplomats in the State Department who preceded Shultz's tenure there. Among these consultants were Don Oberdorfer, retired foreign affairs reporter for the Washington Post and author of From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union 1983-91. And Richard Reeves, author of "Ronald Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination."

The Nation and Fair blogs, along with a few other sources, accuse me of bias because I didn't discuss Shultz's support for the Iraq war while he was still a board member of the Bechtel Corporation. Aside from my having no evidence of improper behavior in this matter, the subject and time period were outside the focus of the show which followed Shultz almost exclusively through his tenure as Secretary of State, ending in 1989.

As we sadly know, our society has become plagued with partisanship and an obsession with "Gotcha" publicity. Is there not room for a positive portrayal of an American, much admired by leaders of both political parties, who has served his nation successfully at the highest level of government and academia for almost seventy years? Must we fall prey to a knee jerk requirement for negative coverage to "keep it balanced"?