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You can learn a lot about history from history.
Before there was Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s epic documentary “The Vietnam War,” which aired its 10th and final episode on PBS Thursday night, there was an earlier epic on PBS, “Vietnam: A Television History.”
It was 13 parts, produced at WGBH in Boston and shown on PBS stations in 1983, fewer than 10 years after the war ended. And that explains the different reactions to what are both deeply reported indictments of why and how the war was prosecuted.
Sara Altherr, who was chief publicist for the 1983 series and wife of its executive producer, Richard “Dick” Ellison, has been taking in the new series while remembering what it was like to be in the thick of the original epic on the Vietnam War.
The other day, she was standing on the back deck of the home in Kingston she and Ellison moved into after the series aired. The tidal Jones River behind her house has the same murky color of parts of the Mekong Delta. Ellison died in 2004, but the way he and the rest of those who made the seminal documentary on Vietnam were treated is not far from the surface.
“We were vilified by the right,” Altherr said. “They attacked it while it was still in production.”
This was before FOX News, before Breitbart, before conservatives had their own well-oiled media outlets. But they did have AIM, Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization that existed to point out left-wing bias in the press and media. AIM said the series was anti-American and pro-communist, making US soldiers look like dope fiends and war criminals while framing Ho Chi Minh in the soft, flattering light of a Jeffersonian democrat.
The 1983 documentary was critical of American policy and some military actions, but so is “The Vietnam War.”
AIM claimed the 1983 series was riddled with “serious errors and distortions” and demanded equal time. PBS acquiesced, airing a 57-minute rebuttal by AIM in which narrator Charlton Heston intoned that American intentions in Vietnam were noble but were undermined by naysaying and lying journalists who lost the war.
A left-leaning press, not a government that repeatedly lied to its people, was the enemy.
Hmmm. Sounds familiar.
“We were attacked for being fair,” Altherr said. “We presented both sides, all sides.”
Ellison was furious at PBS for caving to AIM’s demands. He believed the Reagan administration pressured PBS bigshots to air the rebuttal. PBS officials defended their decision, framing it as offering a TV version of “letters to the editor.”
Altherr has watched the Burns/Novick series, and, aside from being miffed at the publicity for the film that she says snubs the 1983 series, considers it extremely well done.
“They obviously have material that we did not have access to 35 years ago,” she said, referring to compelling audio tapes of President Johnson and evidence showing that Richard Nixon conspired to delay peace talks in Paris to ensure his election as president in 1968.
But what surprises Altherr and others who worked on the 1983 series is the absence of a coordinated attack against it by conservative forces similar to those who rose up in indignation 35 years ago. If anything, the most compelling criticism of Burns/Novick is that they strayed too close to the middle.
Kenn Rabin, an expert at using archival material to tell a story, worked on the 1983 documentary and later on “Eyes on the Prize,” about the civil rights movement. He says the 1983 Vietnam epic was the first long-form documentary series that PBS produced and established the genre and style that remains to this day on public television.
Rabin, whose film credits include “Milk,” “Good Night, And Good Luck,” and “Selma,” remembers that Vietnam was still raw at the time and that Ellison’s sound advice was: Trust your own view least.
Unfortunately, over the years, our collective political culture has gone in the other direction.
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