WASHINGTON — The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities has attacked the upcoming public television series "The Africans" as an "anti-Western diatribe," "narrow and politically tendentious," and demanded that the endowment's name be removed from the list of the series' major supporters.
In an angry letter to WETA President Ward Chamberlin Jr., endowment chairman Lynne Cheney also rejected the station's request for an additional $50,000 to help publicize the series and accused the station of having chosen "most blatantly to ignore" the standards of "objectivity and balance" it had promised to keep when it solicited and received a $600,000 endowment grant for the series.
"Anybody in this country can, of course, produce any film with any bias he or she pleases," Cheney wrote. "But when you seek funding from NEH--when you use taxpayer dollars to underwrite your efforts--then standards of balance and objectivity are demanded."
"The Africans" is a nine-part series co-produced by Washington station WETA and the British Broadcasting Corp. WETA raised about 40% of the project's $3.5-million budget, including the $600,000 NEH grant. The series is scheduled to air early next month and is being touted by the Public Broadcasting Service as one of the jewels of the fall schedule. It aired to generally favorable reviews in Great Britain in May.
Promotional materials for the series describe it as an exploration of Africa's triple heritage: "what is indigenous, what was contributed by Islam, and what has been imposed or acquired from the West."
While critical of the entire series, Cheney's letter reserved particular scorn for parts four and nine, which include segments on Liberian President Samuel K. Doe and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, respectively.
Part four, she wrote, "which the producers have entitled 'Tools of Exploitation,' strives to blame every technological, moral and economic failure of Africa on the West. The thesis of this segment is so overdrawn that at times it becomes ludicrous. When Master Sgt. Doe's henchmen brutally execute former Liberian leaders, the blame is cast on Western technology--on the guns used by the executioners rather than on the Africans pulling the triggers."
In part nine, the letter said, "Kadafi's virtues are set forth. Shortly thereafter, pictures of mushroom clouds fill the screen and it is suggested that Africans are about to come into their own, because after 'final racial conflict' in South Africa, black Africans will have nuclear weapons.
" . . . I fail to understand how a public television station of WETA's stature and reputation could be involved with a series that extols the virtues of Moammar Kadafi," Cheney wrote. "Surely you must have suspected that such a series would not fit within the guidelines established by the National Endowment for the Humanities."
Chamberlin said Wednesday that he was "very disappointed" in Cheney's reaction. "I'm very proud of the series," he said. "It's what we said it would be all along. The proposal doesn't make it out to be a balanced, unbiased view of Africa today. It doesn't intend to be that.
"It's stimulating and provocative and damn interesting. It got my blood pressure going, it made me think. I can understand somebody not liking it. From the beginning this was intended as an African's view of Africa, and a particular African."
That African is the series' author and narrator, Ali A. Mazrui, a Kenyan-born, British-trained political scientist who has divided his teaching in the past 15 years between the University of Michigan and the University of Nigeria. Mazrui has written more than a dozen books on African affairs and history and, according to WETA's Chamberlin and others, was a known commodity to the endowment review panel that approved the funding.
"It is in no sense a namby-pamby view of Africa as we'd all like it to be," said Barry Chase, PBS vice president for news and public affairs. "I guess if all a viewer is looking for is good news, they're going to be disappointed."
He added that Americans may not agree with Mazrui's views but cannot afford to ignore them. "I can tell you that the series is a powerful, beautiful piece of documentary film making. It is a commentary, and we will make it clear to the audience that it is a commentary."
Suzanne Weil, senior vice president for programming at PBS, said the network stands behind the series. "It won't sit well with everybody. Good television seldom does. I find it absolutely fascinating. He's controversial, I am told," she said of Mazrui.