PBS, the Communist Folk Singer Tribute Channel?

February 25th, 2008 7:39 AM

To those who make public fools of themselves saying that one-sided left-wing programming on PBS is an illusion, we suggest they open the Sunday Washington Post to the TV Week magazine. There on the cover is a picture of Pete Seeger, the radical-left folk singer-songwriter. "Raising His Voice: PBS Pays Tribute to Singer-Activist Pete Seeger," the cover says. Inside, readers learn PBS is offering a 90-minute documentary openly described as a "tribute." The headline is "Pete Seeger, a Force of Nature." Even Seeger seems embarrassed that PBS is offering America this whitewash of his life and career:

Regrets? Seeger says he has "millions of them -- stupid things I've done here and there." His criticism of the PBS tribute is that it "didn't show any of the stupid things I've done." Director Jim Brown has known Seeger for a long time, said Susan Lacy, executive producer of the "American Masters" series, and Brown wasn't trying to make a totally balanced film. "That's not meant in a negative way," she said. "It's just that Pete Seeger is such a principled idealist, such a good man."

Post staff writer Judith S. Gillies mentioned in passing that the film would touch on Seeger's membership in the Communist Party, but the story just ran praise, including from famous liberal TV producer Norman Lear, listed as executive producer of this whitewash. In the New York Sun, Ron Radosh explained last summer that he was interviewed for Brown’s film, with a predictable result: all his critical remarks were edited out.

Two years ago, Mr. Brown asked to interview me for the film. I was a former student and friend of Mr. Seeger's and have written critically about his life and politics. I asked Mr. Brown whether he would actually use what I said. Mr. Brown responded that Pete and his wife, Toshi, wanted a critical voice in the film and did not want just to paint him as a man without blemishes.

In my interview, I praised Mr. Seeger's contributions to music and reminisced about being his student in New York while in high school and as a counselor at Camp Woodland, a left-wing summer camp. I also asked why, after supporting Stalin's tyranny for most of his life, Mr. Seeger had never written a song about the Gulag. He often introduces his song "Treblinka" by saying how we cannot forget the past. Yet he still says nothing critical about Fidel Castro's Cuba, or any other "socialist" regimes.

Mr. Brown's film is beautifully crafted and photographed, with great footage and a lot of good folk music. But although my praise and personal memories made the final cut, my critical comments did not. When I spoke to Mr. Brown a few days ago, he told me my remarks weren't appropriate for a tribute to Mr. Seeger's spirit and his contributions to America.

Some will argue that Mr. Seeger deserves such praise. But our country has more than made up for the 17 years Mr. Seeger was blacklisted from both radio and TV. In the past decade, Mr. Seeger has received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton and has been fLted at the Kennedy Center. A recent profile in the Washington Post style section proclaimed him a "national treasure" and America's "best-loved Commie." A few years ago, Mr. Seeger was invited to speak at the National Press Club. Just two months ago, the Library of Congress held an all-day tribute to him. After all of this, shouldn't a new documentary give its audience an accurate and honest account of his life?

Read the whole thing. Shouldn't accuracy and balance matter to PBS, and to the Congress that supposedly oversees it? Should American taxpayers subsidize films with all the objectivity and editorial integrity of a Soviet commissar?

Other Seeger posts:

-- NYT Writer Corrects Record: Pete Seeger 'Only' 40 Years Late in Denouncing Stalin

-- Happy Fourth of July: Pacifica Radio Talked Communism With Pete Seeger