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Amid Controversy, Second Part of PBS's George Shultz Series to Air Tonight | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

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Amid Controversy, Second Part of PBS's George Shultz Series to Air Tonight

The second installment of the three-part PBS series about former Nixon and Reagan cabinet fixture George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, airs tonight, amid some controversy. 

One week ago, in a piece here, I pointed out that some of the funding for the surprisingly epic series came from sources closely tied to Shultz, such as Bechtel and Schwab, and the producers from Choose Media had a decidedly rightwing background, making claims that the portrait was overly flattering  all too believable. 

FAIR soon weighed in with an appeal to "action," linking to my piece, making a few more points, and listing a few films rejected by PBS in th past because of funding ties. It asked readers to contact the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler,  who has a long and respected career in journalism, including coverage of Shultz while at The Washington Post.  FAIR pointed out that Getler wrote in 2006 that  at PBS "internal guidelines are fairly extensive. They state, in part, that 'PBS expects producers to adhere to the highest professional standards' including 'real or perceived conflicts of interest.'"

In response, Peter Sussman disclosed that his Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists  was "troubled" by the FAIR charges  "suggesting serious conflicts of interest in the funding and editorial perspective" of the program.

The FAIR  appeal apparently worked, as Getler produced a lengthy column late Friday, criticizing the show and publishing responses from writer/producer/director David deVries and from PBS itself.  DeVries wrote that he wanted 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 ." 

DeVries' defense is that he was not overtly pressured by Choose Media (which, among other films, produced one denying global warming) to go soft on Shultz: "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."  He concludes:  "Must we fall prey to a knee jerk requirement for negative coverage to 'keep it balanced'?"

Of course, that is not the point, as Getler makes clear in the following points:

--"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."

--"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."

--"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."

--"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."

Getler also rejected DeVries' complaint that leaving out Shultz's championing of the invasion of Iraq was not relevant because the series focuses on the Reagan years, pointing out that this epic-length series promises a full "life story."   Shultz was chairman of  the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. "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," Getler observes.

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