Fact-checking PBS’ Humphrey documentary

by Mark Powell

PBSâÄô recent documentary “The Art of the Possible” on Hubert H. Humphrey, perhaps the most consequential 20th century politician not president, was academically informed by the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Humphrey School of Public Affairs. It isnâÄôt bad next to some “top” PBS content, but this is not the same as being error-free. It typifies one way PBSâÄô errors are more pernicious than newspapersâÄô: they keep re-airing. Also typically, it touts blue-chip corporate, foundation and PBS backing, including New York “flagship” WNET âÄî which like other âÄúflagshipsâÄù in Washington and Boston, and nearly all PBS outlets IâÄòve probed, shows poorly in factual errors and abominably facing error reports.

Such factual and ethical realities âÄî not ephemeral political bias for which PBS takes fire âÄî should be public focus. History, geography, science and math may not be politically sexy, but how about “expertsâÄô” and leadersâÄô ubiquitous refusal to admit and correct errors, despite claimed policies?

No doubt from weak homework, not bias, the documentary understates U.S. buildup in Vietnam: “By the end of HumphreyâÄôs first year as vice president, there were almost 200,000 American troops” in Vietnam, and “by December of 1967 there were nearly 400,000 American troops in Southeast Asia.”

Sources faulty on other points but better than PBS cite higher figures earlier. Robert McNamaraâÄôs Nov. 30, 1965 memo to President Lyndon Johnson stated that by year-end (three weeks before HumphreyâÄôs V.P. anniversary), 220,000 U.S. troops would be in-country. Historian Robert Leckie wrote in June 1967 that 440,000 were in Vietnam and enough in Thailand and the Seventh Fleet to put the total “in Southeast Asia” above 500,000.

Extremely unusual in my files, some faults do seem politically germed. The Tet OffensiveâÄôs “massive attack” did turn U.S. public opinion. But omitting its military failure âÄî Vietcong disaster in numbers and skills lost âÄî is egregious, implying U.S. battlefield rather than political defeat.

At President Richard NixonâÄôs Jan. 20, 1969 inauguration, a caption states: “The Vietnam War lasted seven more years and 25,000 more American soldiers died.”

The casualty reference is at least in the right range from early 1969. The time reference is very misleading. Nixon withdrew most forces in his first term; the Paris agreement was signed Jan. 27, 1973, a week into his second. Even SaigonâÄôs fall, with U.S. forces years gone, was “only” six years, three months and 10 days from Jan. 20, 1969.

WeâÄôre also told Nixon beat Humphrey by “less than one-half of one percent of the popular vote.” Sources oddly disagree, but none I saw cited 0.5 percent or less. A common figure is 43.4 percent for Nixon to 42.7 for Humphrey.

When I called the Humphrey School, staff wouldnâÄôt clearly claim let alone factually discuss the documentary, or name responsible faculty.

Universities, never my focus, have repeatedly entered my files âÄî Harvard, Georgetown, Chicago, Boston University, Arizona, Arizona State, Rutgers, Penn State âÄî and only a North Carolina gender scholar freely admitted error without hate.

“Experts” virtually never face their factual errors responsibly. In 2008 in the Star Tribune, I took a long-overdue look at Rochester, Minn.âÄôs big, outrageously errant, unfixable war memorial. The embarrassed Post-Bulletin spluttered in articles and an editorial, unable to explain why it long missed such facts. Someone called me a “Confederate sympathizer” for correcting Civil War error. The desperate memorial chairman denied any error.

Across PBS, responses are mostly silence, bile, denial. One exception: FrontlineâÄôs former executive editor, Louis Wiley, who corrected errors at least online, studied my files and wrote support, saying “these transgressions have been committed by a wide variety of entities that pride themselves on their journalistic and academic reputations. Mr. Powell made an extensive study of mistakes committed by The Washington Post, for example, but others have found themselves also scrutinized by him….Some editors and entities appear not to want to correct error even when brought to their attention, and they may not want to do so even after being publicly shamed. The unwillingness to admit error is one of mankindâÄôs less appealing traits.âĦ I find myself allied with Mr. PowellâÄôs principled quest to improve our publications….Our society and culture are poorer when media and academic institutions take a careless attitude toward facts.” But he couldnâÄôt move the rest of WGBH, let alone PBS.

The Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and Duluth News Tribune wouldnâÄôt treat the documentary.

ItâÄôs unlikely, but the Humphrey School could now reply responsibly: admit faults, correct however feasible, avoid impulse to attack the messenger and commit to improve.