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AIM gets equal time on PBS to contest controversial Vietnam series

By Arthur Unger / June 25, 1985



New York

One of public broadcasting's most controversial shows in recent years is finally emerging from the insiders' closet, where it has been in tumultuous preparation for several months. It proves to be much ado about something. But the ``something'' is, perhaps, not what executive producer Ned Schnurman, Accuracy in Media chairman Reed Irvine, and PBS public-affairs vice-president Barry Chase had in mind when they scheduled a rebuttal to the 1983 prizewinning series ``Vietnam: A Television History'' from WGBH, Boston. It is more about the need for a fair response mechanism on television than it is about this particular response.

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Vietnam Op/Ed -- An Inside Story Special (PBS, Wednesday, June 26, 8-10 p.m., airing on different days at different times in many areas so check local listings) is basically the AIM response ``documentary,'' titled ``Television's Vietnam: The Real Story,'' complemented fore and aft with background explanations, comment, and ``expert'' debate.

The AIM response hour, hosted by Charlton Heston, consists mostly of ``talking heads,'' objections to the original series (some valid and some oversimplified), a few film clips, and emotion-evoking music. It is more a commentary than a documentary. It makes no claim to anything other than its own version of reality.

Only a few of the charges that AIM levels against the Vietnam series:

It propagates the myth that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist rather than a communist.

It treats all South Vietnamese as bad guys.

It portrays American GIs as bigoted dope addicts.

It overemphasizes the role of the United States in Ngo Dinh Diem's regime.

It underemphasizes the Viet Cong atrocities.

It doesn't make it clear that the US defeated the Tet offensive, despite the distorted reports of the US press.

A wide range of involved persons takes part in the introduction and discussions, some of it factually relevant, some of it simply opinion. Included are AIM's Mr. Irvine, NBC News president Lawrence Grossman, former CBS News president Richard Salant, and PBS's Mr. Chase, as well as several Vietnam scholars.

While some of the accusations are discussed hurriedly, there is, unfortunately, very little substantive debate. Most of the focus is on the shortcomings of the original series, which in most expert opinion was a serious if not completely perfect attempt at evenhandedness. Many of the objections deal with interpretation of facts rather than facts themselves.

Will the American public watch this program? Will viewers be willing to devote two hours to squabbling about point of view, questioning of motivation, revisionist attitudes toward history? There is no question that viewers of this program who saw (and remember) the original series will have a more rounded picture of Vietnam history, including all the confusions and conflicting points of view.

But shouldn't there have been a discussion at the time the series was airing originally? Shouldn't there now be a carefully devised mechanism to make certain that the most responsible voices, rather than just the most aggressive, receive on-air response time?

Executive producer Schnurman of ``Inside Story'' and Chase of PBS are to be congratulated for seeking a solution to the problem of public access to TV. What has resulted is an imperfect, uneven, sometimes informative, sometimes obfuscating, often disturbing program. Whether it will clarify anything for anybody is questionable. But if it does not precipitate many new thoughts about Vietnam, one hopes it will still expedite movement toward devising a fair plan for a television Op/Ed response in the future. 30{et