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

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

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.”

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.“American Umpire” hides these horrific transgressions and the imperial calculations behind much of U.S. foreign policy past and present. As numerous key U.S. planning documents reveal over and over, the goal of that policy was to maintain and, if necessary, install governments that, as Noam Chomsky put it, “favor[ed] private investment of domestic and foreign capital, production for export, and the right to bring profits out of the country.” Given the United States’ remarkable possession of half the world’s capital after World War II, Washington elites had no doubt that U.S. investors and corporations would profit the most. Internally, the basic, selfish, national and imperial objectives were openly and candidly discussed. 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% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% 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 that were 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. Because 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 President Richard Nixon’s coldblooded national security adviser Henry Kissinger explained in June 1970, three years before the U.S. sponsored a fascist coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected leftist 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.”

The selfish imperial cynicism of U.S. foreign policy continues to this day, into the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era. As leading Dutch political scientists Bastiaann van Apeldoorn and Nana de Graaff write in their important new volume, “American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks: The Open Door Since the End of the Cold War,” “From the end of the nineteenth century onward, American grand strategy has pursued a liberal expansionism aimed at the creation of a global hegemony premised upon open, ‘free’ markets, to which global capital—and, above all, U.S. transnational capital—has full access. … The global Open Door has continued to define the ends of the American grand strategy throughout the post-Cold War era.” Because Washington’s commitment to “democracy” and “human rights” is conditional and hypocritical: The noble principles are fine insofar as they serve the free-market hegemony of global and especially U.S. transnational capital. They are dispensed with, even as U.S. policymakers trumpet them, when they do not.

Secret History, Real and Hidden

Today’s PBS is not about to blow the whistle on the moral contradictions. Two recent documentaries on the U.S. and Islamic State by the network’s shining jewel of investigative journalism, “Frontline,” are cases in point. “The Secret History of ISIS” (which aired May 17) and “Confronting ISIS” (which aired Oct. 11) were produced by Council on Foreign Relations member and leading PBS documentarian Martin Smith. In these films, Smith and “Frontline” get some key and by now uncontroversial parts of Washington’s role in the rise of Islamic State right. They acknowledge 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-Qaida 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 grasps 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 Assad—repression that sparked a vicious Syrian civil war that permitted Islamic State to occupy much of Syria, along with much of western Iraq.

But PBS’ premier investigative arm deletes 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’s nothing about what the leading leftist 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.” (Because “that seems out of reach at the present,” Johnstone adds, “the strategy is simply to keep the war going as long as possible, deepening the chaos, until nobody much is left except the exiles in London being groomed by Western powers to win rigged elections.”)

Also omitted is Washington policymakers’ clear understanding that most of the rebels fighting the Assad government were radical Islamists opposed to Assad’s secular regime. These forces were the predominant anti-Assad opposition from the start. Washington has a long history of joining allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan in covertly equipping and deploying extreme Sunni jihadists to fight and overthrow secular Arab and Muslim regimes seen as antithetical to U.S. economic and geopolitical “open door” interests (e.g., Marxist Afghanistan, Saddam’s Iraq, Gadhafi’s Libya) and to help counter the regional power and influence of Shiite Iran and the key Syrian ally, Russia.

That is the true secret history of Islamic state 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 appear and get quoted (some at great length) in this year’s two “Frontline” Islamic State 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 from 2003 to 2004), David Petraeus (commander of the 101st Airborne during the invasion of Iraq, director of multinational occupation forces in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, head of U.S. Central Command from 2008 to 2010, U.S. commander of Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and director of the CIA from 2011 to 2012), Richard Clarke (the U.S. National Security Council’s counterterrorism coordinator from 1992 to 2004), Leon Panetta (director of the CIA and then secretary of defense from 2009 to 2013), Chuck Hagel (U.S. secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015), Ash Carter (secretary of defense since 2015), Derek Chollet (assistant secretary of defense from 2012 to 2015), Matthew Spence (assistant secretary of defense for Middle East Policy from 2012 to 2015), 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 from 2013 to 2015), Colin Kahl (assistant secretary of defense for international affairs), William Wechsler (assistant secretary of defense from 2012 to 2015), Brett McGurk (special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL), Kenneth Pollack (a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer and senior Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations 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 Smith from “Frontline,” “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff, “NewsHour” foreign policy chief Margaret Warner and longtime “NewsHour” producer and anchor Jim Lehrer) members of the Council on Foreign Relations, where American “open door” grand strategy is most influentially developed. The expert list for “Frontline” is rounded out with a handful of New York Times reporters, a Council on Foreign Relations 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 are disqualified in advance.

There is a natural connection between the “P” in PBS standing for “Plutocracy” and it standing for “Pentagon.” The core economic interests of the nation’s superwealthy corporate and financial elite have long been global in nature. And, as the arch-neoliberal guru and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman explained in New York Times Magazine on the eve of the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” Friedman is a PBS favorite. He has appeared on “NewsHour” and other PBS productions at least 50 times by now.

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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