Reflections on the Not-so Public Broadcasting System

In a television commercial that the United States’ Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ran for years, PBS “NewsHour” host Gwen Ifill declared that she loved her job because it allowed her to “ask not only all of my questions but also and more importantly all of your questions.” This assertion was, and remains, absurd, just like her network’s regular fundraising claim to be free of corporate sponsors. The claim has long been contradicted by the string of corporate “image” commercials (purchased by leading financial, “defense,” auto, insurance, and rail corporations) that appear before the network’s nightly “NewsHour”—along with a list of corporate-sponsored foundations and super-wealthy individuals who pay for the show along with “regular viewers like you.” Consistent with those commercials and despite its name, the news and commentary one finds on PBS is in rich tune with the narrow capitalist parameters of acceptable coverage and debate that typify the more fully and explicitly for-profit and commercialized corporate media. As progressive journalist David Sirota suggested two years ago, reflecting on recent investigations showing that super-moneyed right-wing capitalists like the Koch brothers and Texas billionaire had (along with more “liberal” software mogul Bill Gates) influenced PBS content through multi-million dollar donations, the “P” in “PBS” often seems to more properly stand for “Plutocratic,” not “Public.” None of this should be surprising to anyone familiar with the distinctively big business-dominated history of U.S. broadcast media. Since the United States fails to provide anything like adequate funding for public broadcasting, both “P”BS and National “Public” Radio (a regular vehicle for neoliberal business ideology) depend on foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for much of their programming. Beneath their standard claims to have no interest in shaping “public” media content, these private funders have bottom-line agendas—meaning that their contributions come with strings attached—strings that undermine the integrity of the “independent” journalism they bankroll. (For what it’s worth, for two decades, between 1994 and 2014, the “NewsHour” was primarily owned by the for-profit firm Liberty Media.  Liberty Media was run by the conservative and politically active billionaire John Malone, who had a majority stake in MacNeil-Lehrer, the show’s producer.)

The Pentagon Broadcasting System?

What might seem more surprising perhaps is the remarkable extent to which the “P” in “PBS” often seems to stand for “Pentagon” or perhaps “Presidential” when it comes to foreign policy content. Whatever the global issue of the day or week, “NewsHour” anchors and their invited “experts” can be counted on to report and reflect in accord with the doctrinal assumption that Washington always operates with the best of intentions. They almost uniformly treat the U.S. as a great, benevolent, and indispensable force for freedom, democracy, security, peace, and order in a dangerous world full of evil and deadly actors.

The show’s invited commentators are drawn primarily from the nation’s imperial establishment. They are commonly current or retired insiders from within the Pentagon, the White House, the “intelligence community,” and/or the nation’s elite network of foreign policy think-tanks:

  • the Council on Foreign Relations the granddaddy of all S. ruling class think-tanks
  • the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • the Aspen Institute
  • the Atlantic Council
  • the RAND Corporation
  • the Hoover Institution

“NewsHour” anchors and guests generally agree that the United States’ officially designated enemies are malevolent bad guys who need to be contained, controlled, and even attacked by the ultimate good guy, Uncle Sam.

Not surprisingly, the long and ongoing record of U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality is swept down George Orwell’s memory hole even as new entries to the ugly registry occur. When reported by “NewsHour,” horrific crimes committed by the U.S. military are always treated as well-intended mistakes. Along with the rest of the “mainstream” U.S. media, “NewsHour” “insists that Russia deliberately bombs hospitals, etc., where if we do it, it is of course an accident.”

There’s some room for disagreement between and among the show’s invited experts, including the show’s foreign policy authority Margaret Warner, about specific U.S. foreign policy tactics, strategies, and actions. There’s no space for serious debate about the immorality, lawlessness, or imperial nature of that policy. On the rare occasions when “NewsHour” anchors seem to challenge guests from the White House or Pentagon on foreign policy matters, it is generally to ask why the U.S. isn’t going harder at the officially certified bad guys.

America as Umpire, NOT Empire

The foreign policy coverage and commentary doesn’t get much better in the documentary division of PBS. A documentary shown last October bears the risible title “American Umpire”—an obvious World Series season play on what the filmmakers see as the preposterous notion of an American Empire. It is narrated by ex-U.S. Marine and former “NewsHour” host and producer, Jim Lehrer. Developed by the right-wing Hoover Institution and “targeted for PBS” (the organization’s own revealing phrase), “American Umpire” takes the doctrinal “Exceptionalist” U.S. Good and Rest of World Dangerous narrative to absurd lengths.

It provides extensive “expert” commentary from such former imperial operatives as Madeline Albright the onetime U.S. Secretary of State who led the charge to criminally bomb Serbia and who went on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to say that the death of more than half a million Iraqi children killed by Washington-led “economic sanctions” was “a price worth paying”; Condoleezza Rice; George W. Bush’s neoconservative National Security Adviser before and during the arch-criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq; General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis , an Iraq invasion commander and a former chief of the U.S. Central Command who two years ago told a San Diego audience that “It’s fun to shoot people”; George P. Schultz, the former Reagan era U.S. Secretary of State who called the Sandinista government in Nicaragua “a cancer in our own land mass” that must be “cut out”; Karel Eikenberry, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan ten years ago; with further commentary from a handful of mostly conservative academicians—above all the nationalist Texas A&M historian Elizabeth Cobbs, author of a book on which the “documentary” is based.. “American Umpire” portrays 20th and 21st century U.S. foreign policy as nothing more than a noble effort to selflessly provide welcome and fair rules and discipline on the rest of a childish, dangerous, and reckless planet—think Lord of the Flies—that lacks the exceptional historical experience bequeathed to U.S. “leaders” by the nation’s far-seeing Founding Fathers. The only substantive criticism of U.S. foreign policy in “American Umpire” is the complaint voiced by numerous interview subjects that America harms itself to the benefit and delinquent and “unmanly” others—the Europeans above all by taking on its shoulders too much of the burden of benevolently policing the planet. We are just too good for our own good.

“Our Real Task”

T here is not enough space here to discuss in responsible detail the epic historical deletions and distortions this narrative imposes. The omissions are staggering. They range from:

  • the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos resisting S. imperial invasion and occupation at the last century’s outset
  • the restoration of de facto slavery in Haiti and the Dominican Republic after World War I
  • the unnecessary atom-bombing of Hiroshima and (even worse,) Nagasaki (really the first shots of the Cold War
  • the toppling of more than 50 governments by S. coups and invasions since the end of World War II
  • the liquidation of perhaps as many as 5 million Southeast Asians (in the so-called Vietnam War) between 1962 and 1975
  • the Cold War-era sponsorship of “Third World fascism” from Chile to South Africa and Indonesia
  • the attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and numerous CIA-directed terror bombings in socialist Cuba
  • the near-instigation of global thermo-nuclear war on at least three occasions
  • the development and sponsorship of Osama-bin Laden and other radically arch-reactionary jihadist Muslim paramilitary forces to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan
  • the “Highway of Death” (when S. warp-planes engaged in an “aerial traffic jam” as they rushed to slaughter tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Iraq in 1991)
  • the coordination and sponsorship of a mass-murderous civil war on peasants, workers, and intellectuals (with a death toll well into the many hundreds of thousands) in Central American during the 1970s and 1980s
  • the disastrous S. invasion of Iraq (responsible for at least 1 million premature Iraqi deaths)
  • the calamitous S. toppling of the Libyan Gadaffi regime
  • the destabilization of the Syrian regime
  • the S. funding and encouragement of civil war in central Africa
  • the enablling and protection of a vicious right-wing coup in Honduras in 2009
  • the criminal S. global war of (“on”) terror, replete with rampant “targeted assassinations,” torture, illegal renditions, endless drone war, and Special Forces killing operations across the Muslim world and other places as well.

“American Umpire” disappears not only these horrific transgressions, but the imperial calculations behind much of U.S. foreign policy past and present. As numerous key U.S. planning documents reveal, the goal of that policy was to maintain and, if necessary, install governments that “favored private investment of domestic and foreign capital, production for export, and the right to bring profits out of the country.” As the “liberal” and “dovish” imperialist, top State Department planner, and key Cold War architect George F. Kennan explained in “Policy Planning Study 23,” a critical 1948 document:

  • “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population….. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming… The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

The necessity of dispensing with “human rights” and other “sentimental” and “unreal objectives” was especially pressing in the global South. Washington assigned the vast periphery of the world economic (capitalist) system—Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the energy-rich and thus strategically hyper-significant Middle East—a less than flattering role. It was to “fulfill its major function as a source of raw materials and a market” (actual State Department language for the great industrial (capitalist) nations (excluding “socialist” Russia and its satellites). It was to be exploited both for the benefit of U.S. corporations/investors and for the reconstruction of Europe and Japan as prosperous U.S. trading and investment partners organized on properly capitalist principles and hostile to the Soviet bloc.

Democracy” was fine as a slogan and benevolent, idealistic-sounding mission statement when it came to marketing this core, underlying ultra-imperialist U.S. policy at home and abroad. Since most people in the “third world” had no interest in neocolonial subordination and subscribed to what U.S. intelligence officials considered the heretical “idea that government has direct responsibility for the welfare of its people” (what post-World War II U.S. planners called “communism”), Washington’s real-life commitment to popular governance abroad was strictly qualified, to say the least. “Democracy” was suitable to the U.S. as long as its outcomes comported with the interests of U.S. investors/corporations and related U.S. geopolitical objectives. It had to be abandoned, undermined, and/or crushed when it threatened those investors/corporations and the broader imperatives of business rule to any significant degree. As U.S. president Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger explained in June 1970, three years before the U.S.-sponsored  fascist coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected Left president Salvador Allende: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” Today’s “P”BS is not about to blow the whistle on the moral contradictions. Two recent documentaries on the U.S. and the Islamic State by the network’s shining jewel of investigative journalism, “Frontline” are cases in point. “The Secret History of ISIS” (original air date, May 17, 2016) and “Confronting ISIS” (October 11, 2016) were produced by CFR member and leading “P”BS documentarian Martin Smith. In these films, Smith and “Frontline” got some key and uncontroversial parts of Washington’s role in the rise of the Islamic State right. It acknowledged that George W. Bush’s mad and poorly planned invasion of Iraq and subsequent U.S. fanning of sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims provided the power vacuum and fertile soil within which al Qaeda of Iraq could take sectarian Sunni violence to extreme new levels and try to establish a new caliphate—a functioning territorial and religious state. “Frontline” also grasped the role of the Arab Spring in generating a democratic rebellion inside Syria, something that provoked repression on the part of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad—repression that sparked a vicious Syrian civil war that permitted the Islamic State to occupy much of Syria along with much of western Iraq.

But “P”BS’s premier investigative arm deleted the role of the White House, the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA in sponsoring opposition to the Assad government in the hope of bringing about regime change in Damascus years before the Arab Spring. There was nothing in either documentary about what the left foreign policy writer Diana Johnstone calls “the longstanding ambition by the United States and its allies to replace the Syrian Arab nationalist state with an obedient pro-Western clique, friendly to Israel.”

Also omitted was Washington policymakers’ clear understanding that most of the rebels fighting the Assad government were radical Islamists opposed to Assad’s secular regime and these forces were the predominant anti-Assad opposition from the start. The consistency of this understanding with Washington’s longstanding gambit of joining with its allies Saudi Arabi, Turkey, and Pakistan in covertly equipping and deploying extreme Sunni jihadists to fight and overthrow secular Arab and Muslim regimes was seen as antithetical to U.S. economic and geopolitical “Open Door” interests, and to help counter the regional power and influence of Shia Iran and the key Syrian ally Russia. That is the true secret history of ISIS and U.S. Syria policy—unmentionable on a “Public” Broadcasting System that often seems to function like the Pentagon Broadcasting System. These deletions make perfect Orwellian sense, given the following list of not-so outside “experts” who appeared and got quoted (some at great length) in this year’s two “Frontline” ISIS documentaries:

  • Michael Scheuer (a top CIA Middle East analyst from 1982 to 2004)
  • Colin Powell (George W. Bush’s Secretary of State)
  • Paul Bremer (George W. Bush’s neocolonial Governor of Iraq in 2003-04)
  • David Patraeus (Commander of the U.S. 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq, director of multinational occupation forces in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, head of U.S. Central Command 2008-2010, U.S. Commander of Afghanistan 2010-11, and Director of the CIA, 2011-12)
    • Richard Clarke (the U.S. National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator from 1992 to 2004)
    • Leon Panetta (Director of the CIA and then Secretary of Defense from 2009 to 2013)
    • Chuck Hagel (S. Secretary of Defense, 2013-15)
    • Ash Carter (Secretary of Defense, 2015 to present)
    • Derek Chollet (Assistant Secretary of Defense, 2012-15)
    • Matthew Spence (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy, 2012-15)
    • Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama and Obama speechwriter since 2007)
    • Philip Gordon (Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region, 2013-15)
    • Colin Kahl (Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs)
    • William Wescher (Assistant Secretary of Defense, 2012-15)
    • Brett McGurk, (Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL)
    • Andrew Kim (Kenneth Pollack) (a former CIA analyst and NSC staffer and senior Brookings Institution and CFR Fellow who published a widely read book making the case for Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2002)

The great majority of these foreign policy insiders are, —like “Frontline’s” Smith, “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, “NewsHour;” foreign policy chief Margaret Warner, and longtime “NewsHour” producer and anchor and producer Jim Lehrer—members of the CFR, where American open door grand strategy is most influentially developed. “Frontline’s” expert list was rounded out with a handful of New York Times reporters, a CFR member who writes for the Washington Post (David Ignatius), and a pair of White House- and Pentagon-friendly academicians. Leading correspondents and commentators who have challenged the Obama administration’s account of U.S. Middle East and Syria policy—people like Patrick Cockburn, Diana Johnstone, Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh, and Noam Chomsky, among others—make no appearance. They were  disqualified in advance.

“Choice 2016”

Consistent with all this, “Frontline’s” recent “Choice 2016” (first aired September 27, 2016) documentary treated the presidential election contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on a highly superficial “personal story” level, focusing largely on sex scandals and personality. In the few minutes it dedicates to Hillary’s record as Obama’s Secretary of State, the documentary treats the scandal surrounding her and the Islamist assault without the slightest mention of the very basic facts.

The documentary’s treatment of Trump was equally shallow. “Choice 2016” told personal stories about Trump’s early and later life without making any serious effort to understand him within the context of reigning national and global social and power structures. It provided insight on Trump’s troubled relationships with women and his family of origin and his voracious need for attention as well as the secrets to his personal business failures and successes. But it failed to deal with the proto-fascistic dangers a Trump presidency will pose to social justice, democracy, livable ecology, civil liberties, and peace

The documentary concluded, “between two candidates who have spent decades in the public eye, symbols of a bitterly divided country. Both have life stories that led them to this moment. Now the nation must decide between them.”

“Frontline’s” documentary provided little serious political and intellectual information to use in making that decision. Along the way, it managed to completely ignore third party candidates. Such weak and trivial coverage of the election at the “Public” Broadcasting System becomes less surprising when you understand that the “P” in “PBS” doesn’t really stand for “Public.” It can more accurately said to stand for some other words starting with the letter “P,” including “Plutocratic,” “Pentagon,” “Presidential,” and (thanks to its heavy sponsorship by oil corporations) “Petroleum.”                                                                                                                                                                                             Z

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). A shorter version “The Plutocratic Broadcasting System” appeared on Truthdig.