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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Sharp Right Turn In New Pbs Show

January 20, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

So much for a left-wing bias in public TV.

The 53 conservative congressmen who last year signed a letter demanding a "content analysis" of PBS programming apparently didn't know about a right-tilted documentary titled "The Conservatives." It airs tonight at 8 on Channels 50 and 24 and at 9 on Channels 28 and 15.

They also apparently didn't know about "Hollywood's Favorite Heavy: Businessmen on Prime-Time TV," a PBS documentary scheduled for March.

According to PBS, it recounts a familiar conservative theme by blasting TV's portrayal of business and asking: "Whatever happened to the American dream of a better life through an honest, hard day's work?"

Whatever happened to balanced journalism on PBS?

That's a question conservatives have been asking, especially after "The Africans," last year's pointed PBS documentary series that was soft on Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and rapped Western colonialism--what gall!--in Africa.

Liberals and others may be asking the same question after seeing "The Conservatives," a 90-minute celebration of right-wing politics and politicians--offering no dissenting voices, no perspective.

They also may be wondering about the curious scheduling of both this one-sided program and the business-on-TV documentary. Is it sheer coincidence that they are surfacing as PBS undergoes a review of its program policies, a review begun at least in partial reply to conservative critics?

"The Conservatives" is supposed to chronicle the evolution of the conservative movement in the United States, but it doesn't do its subject justice. It gives you a smattering of conservative personalities with barely a smidgen of conservative thought. It manages to loosely trace conservatism without once defining it--or its opposite number, liberalism, or any other political ism. The subject might as well be Zoroastrianism.

Tonight's uninterrupted parade from the right includes William F. Buckley Jr., William Rusher, Russell Kirk, Clifton White, Barry Goldwater, Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan, Phyllis Schlafly and others.

Hence, an uncritical look is assured, and about as much objective introspection as you could expect from a documentary about the Kennedy clan that interviewed only Kennedys.

No wonder "The Conservatives" is the kind of documentary that would have drawn a standing ovation at the right-dominated 1964 Republican convention.

Should documentaries sit on the fence? Hardly. Here's one vote for documentaries with strong points of view from up and down the political pole.

Each should also accommodate differing opinions, though, and should examine instead of promote and gloss over.

Produced by the Blackwell Corp., "The Conservatives" is tricky and has highly selective recall.

You get an appealing portrait of Red-sniffing Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for example, whom history has shown to be more of a demagogue than a pillar of conservative thought. And along the same political lines, there is no hint here of the wreckage left by that era's conservative House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

Goldwater's presidential campaign gets an extended look, with his landslide loss at the polls in 1964 blamed solely on "attacks in the media and defections from liberal Republicans." It's true that Goldwater did get a terribly unfair rap for saying merely that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" and (the less-quoted half of his statement) "moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue." However, it hardly follows that Goldwater otherwise would have made hash of Lyndon B. Johnson, as the program contends.

The media are bashed again and again here. "If this country ever becomes history," Goldwater says in an interview for the program, "some future historian will blame it on the media."

In waltzing across the 1960s, meanwhile, "The Conservatives" suddenly comes to a screeching halt and gingerly detours around the civil rights movement, which most of the right wing considered a curse. And "The Conservatives" only tiptoes around the edges of Watergate, although Richard Nixon--an anathema to many rightists largely because of his overtures to Red China--does get his comeuppance from Goldwater:

"He's a dishonest man. He was then (at the time of Watergate). I didn't know it."

"The Conservatives" has some cute tricks up its sleeve. John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential opponent is described as "Richard Nixon, the anti-Communist from California," as if Kennedy were pro-Communist. And we hear that in his inaugural speech, Kennedy "seemed to be reaching out for the anti-Communists that opposed him." Same message.

The program lets Schlafly take her unopposed shots at the equal rights amendment, whose supporters, we hear, "ran the spectrum of respectability from Betty Friedan to Betty Ford." Which Betty is on the high end of the spectrum and which is on the low? Three guesses.

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