Two years ago Ben Wattenberg, author, neoconservative political activist and, by virtue of his rumpled homeliness, an unlikely TV personality, hosted a PBS series devoted to the uplifting theme of what's right with America. The effort was popular enough among the corporate folks who fund such things for Wattenberg to be back now with a sequel: "Ben Wattenberg's 1980."
The first of 10 programs airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. (Channel 26) on the subject of the U.S.-Soviet balance of military arms -- and this, clearly, is one thing that Wattenberg thinks is not right with America. Overall, he concludes, the United States is on the way to becoming second to the Soviets and "pretty soon," too.
The gloomy portrait is based on interviews with pilots aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal cruising the Mediterranean, animated charts unfavorably comparing U.S. weapon strength to the Soviets' and brief, predictable interviews with Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) "The American public is very naive," one pilot says (you don't see their faces). "Frankly it scares me to death."
So what happened to Wattenberg's optimism? Actually, charting the rising curve of Soviet military prowess is central to arguments like Wattenberg's.
If we are not as awesome as we once were, this case goes, it is only because we aren't trying as hard as the other guys. The American motto was, and needs to be again, "Peace Through Strength," or so Wattenberg believes.
On the whole, the argument is pretty well-worn stuff. The growing Soviet threat has been bruited for years. In the aftermath of the Kremlin invasion of Afghanistan and other recent Soviet depredations, the facts of Moscow's aggression have been particularly well advertised. And as a result, Congress is on the brink of passing the biggest U.S. peacetime defense-spending increase in history.
Wattenberg's presentation, therefore, comes as no surprise. The most interesting feature for many viewers may well be the film of American jets landing on the Forrestal, an extraordinary technological feat of derring-do that is exciting no matter how mahy times you see it.
As for the issues, the pity is that the program could be more compelling if it spelled out the complexities of the military balance instead of offering an unlabeled but nonetheless blatant brief for one side in a continuing debate. To be fair, Wattenberg does say in closing that a differing view is forthcoming in a later show.
A disturbing question in the meantime is whether the typical viewer will understand that "Ben Wattenberg's 1980" is not like, say, "The McNeil-Lehrer Report," a dispassionate look at one subject or another. It is, as Wattenberg readily concedes, "advocacy television."
In this case, the Dow Chemical Corp., Conoco Inc. and the LTV Corp., bankrollers of the series, are promoting an ideological perspective that plainly coincides with the corporations' own. This installment in the series, at least, is a commercial for the military-industrial complex. Okay. But shouldn't viewers be told that explicitly?
Later programs in the series will be diffferent in topic, if not in point of view. There's going to be a visit to Sri Lanka, a Third World country in which capitalism is reasserting itself. Also planned is a revisionist journalist's view of Vietnam in which reporters are blamed for misrepresenting success as failure.
As a host, Wattenberg is credible enough because he has this schmoozy manner that makes him seem familiar, the sort of intellectual fellow that doesn't talk down to people. There's no razzle dazzle in the style, which last time around audiences seemed to like. WETA must be pleased, since they scheduled the series right after Masterpiece Theater, generally one of the weekly high points of PBS viewing.
But there should be no mistake about it. "Ben Wattenberg's 1980" is, in its own way, a paid political broadcast, more propaganda than journalism.