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PBS Ombudsman: George Shultz Documentary Has “Credibility Problem”

PBS stations have been running a three-part documentary, “Turmoil and Triumph: The George Shultz Years,” which probably would not have gotten any attention were it not for reviews that wondered why it was so flattering and whether its length was a bit excessive.

Now PBS’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, has weighed in, and he says that the project is problematic because funding comes from orgs with links to Shultz, now 90.

He writes that “mostly this film is over-the-top, in my view, with praise but with relatively little critical appraisal of some of the more controversial actions of Shultz’s tenure. It seems protective and goes so far as to have the unseen narrator say at one point, in the aftermath of the suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 servicemen, that “although George Shultz has been instrumental in sending American forces to Beirut, he has had nothing to do with tying them down to an exposed position that was difficult to defend.”

“Richard Reeves notes in his book “President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination” that former President Nixon regularly advised Reagan on foreign affairs, and that “there was a bad word” from Nixon at the time of Shultz’s appointment. “Beware of Shultz. If things go wrong, he wasn’t part of it or never knew about it.””

Moreover, he says that it doesn’t make mention of Shultz’s support for going to war in Iraq.

PBS has defended the project, noting that funding came from an array of sources, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). And its producer, David deVries, says he was never pressured to take a certain slant, nor did he even know who the funders were until late in the process.

The flap over the documentary — more from a New York Times story here — probably says more about the politics of today than those of the 1980s, the height of Shultz’s career. He’s far from the kind of figure who inflames partisan passions, and more recently he endorsed President Obama’s new START treaty with Russia, even as the pact faces opposition from congressional Republicans. But Getler says it’s more about the appearance of a conflict of interest rather than an actual bias.

PBS routinely runs into criticism that it’s disproportionately swayed toward liberal viewpoints. In fact, love of PBS has become a kind of litmus test to measure political affinitiies, having been posed by an attorney to an expert witness in the recent federal Prop 8 trial. But the Shultz documentary highlights what is fast becoming a fact of life for documentary filmmakers: Secure funding, even from not-so-disinterested parties, and hope for the best, or don’t be working at all.

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