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American Experience: 1964 Not As Biased As Expected, But...


Since that was the year I was born, I watched PBS's newest American Experience production, 1964, last night. (You can watch it online free here.)

I braced myself for two hours of received liberal wisdom and stale faux history.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how much respectable attention was paid to, say, Barry Goldwater's doomed-from-the-start presidential campaign.

Two actual contemporaneous conservatives -- Richard A. Viguerie and Phyllis Schlafly -- performed more than ably as designated "right wing" talking heads.

Kudos to the creative team for selecting plenty of rarely seen footage, such as young Goldwater volunteers at work and play, and lengthy film of the Berkeley free speech protests.

Some of this film was startling: those thousands of New Year's Eve celebrants in Times Square looked awfully cheerful for people whose president had just been assassinated.

And how odd to see only two or three obese people, at most.

A few quibbles:

No mention that Betty Friedan was a communist whose book The Feminine Mystique was a tissue of junk social science and autobiographical blarney.

LBJ is portrayed as a noble, even saintly figure, if a bit of a bully -- but hey, that was for a good cause, right? Hell, not even many liberals and leftists at the time thought about him this way. (Language/content warnings.)

The program's biggest error, however, is egregious and obviously intentional.

Again and again, opponents to the Civil Rights Act are described as "Southerners." They are not, however, referred to as Democrats, which they most certainly were as well.

The dubious "Southern strategy" chestnut also gets an airing, unquestioned.

I received much of my early education about world history from programs like this. We should praise them when they're worthwhile, no matter who makes them.

However, bad-faith bias in such documentaries, especially those produced in part with taxpayer funding and later used in the classroom, always needs to be called out, quickly and repeatedly.