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The ‘P’ in PBS Should Stand for ‘Plutocratic’ or ‘Pentagon’

Posted on Oct 27, 2016

By Paul Street

  “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff interviews then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2013. (WikiMedia)

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In a television commercial that the 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” broadcast—along with a list of corporate-sponsored foundations and superwealthy 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 are 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 such as the Koch brothers and Texas billionaire John Arnold had (along with more liberal software mogul Bill Gates) influenced PBS content through multimillion-dollar donations, the “P” in PBS often seems to more properly stand for “Plutocratic,” not “Public.”

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None of this should be surprising to anyone familiar with the distinctively big-business-dominated history of U.S. broadcast media. Because the United States fails to provide anything like adequate funding for public broadcasting, both PBS and National Public Radio (a regular vehicle for neoliberal business ideology) depend upon 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, 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 Productions, 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 U.S. ruling-class think tanks), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Rand Corp. and the Hoover Institution, to name a handful. “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 (more on that below) is swept down George Orwell’s memory hole even as new entries are added to the ugly registry. When reported by the “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, the “NewsHour,” according to a Diana Johnstone article in CounterPunch, “insist[s] that Russia deliberately bombs hospitals, etc., whereas 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 semi-loopy 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 “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 recent documentary (first aired nationally last week) shown by PBS 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-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 “American exceptionalist,” U.S.-good-rest-of-world-dangerous-and-bad narrative to absurd lengths.

It provides extensive “expert” commentary from such former imperial operatives as Madeleine Albright (the onetime U.S. secretary of state who led the charge to criminally bomb Serbia and who went on CBS’ “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” for the advance of U.S. foreign policy goals), Condoleezza Rice (George W. Bush’s neoconservative national security adviser before and during the arch-criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq), Gen. 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 Schultz (the Reagan-era secretary of state who called the Sandinista government in Nicaragua “a cancer in our own land mass” that must be “cut out”) and Karl Eikenberry (a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan 10 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 of others (the Europeans above all) by taking upon its shoulders too much of the burden of benevolently policing the planet. We are just too good for our own good.

Our Real Task

There is not 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 U.S. imperial invasion and occupation at the last century’s outset to 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, of Nagasaki (really the first shots of the Cold War); the toppling of more than 50 governments by U.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 thermonuclear 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 U.S. warplanes 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 America during the 1970s and 1980s; the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq (responsible for at least 1 million Iraqi deaths); the calamitous U.S. toppling of the Libyan Gadhafi regime; the calamitous destabilization of the Syrian regime; the U.S. funding and encouragement of civil war in central Africa; the enablement and protection of a vicious right-wing coup in Honduras in the spring and summer of 2009; the criminal U.S. global war of 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.


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