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VH1's Sins of Omission

There were no political conventions on television the week of August 19, but that doesn't mean advocacy programming was absent from the prime time schedule. VH1, MTV's adult-oriented sister network, offered a five-part documentary, "VH1 Presents the '70s." And how predictable it was. The series' two ideologically themed installments amounted to a salute to the radical left while depicting conservatives as disreputable, mostly unseen players during the decade.

Monday's segment, "Power to the People," celebrated the left's perceived major early-'70s successes: the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the resignation of Richard Nixon. It emphasized the then-young baby boomers' part in bringing about those events - an interesting proposition given that these youngsters had nothing whatsoever to do with Nixon's resignation. He self-destructed, but not before destroying the hippies' political champion, George McGovern. But the historical record was not going to interfere with the segment, which wallowed in, as the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir put it, "a magical time [when] life [was] full of art and meaning."

"Power to the People" reflected the decade as seen through the eyes of Weir and others on the countercultural left, with no attempt at balance. For their sakes, it was a good thing, too. Weir wondered why we fought in Vietnam; an interview with Oliver North would have provided the answer. John Oates (of Hall and Oates fame) bragged about avoiding the military draft; John McCain describing the hell he went through as a POW in order to best serve his country would have ended Oates' romance with cowardice. Robbie Robertson of the Band claimed that after Woodstock, rock music "was kind of the voice of the people"; an answer from...oh, why bother.

"VH1 Presents the '70s" featured interviews with dozens of leftist musicians, writers, and academics. The likes of Nixon and Ronald Reagan popped up a few times in file footage, but in neither of the political segments of the series were any conservatives interviewed, nor right-of-center positions advanced. But not even as tendentious an hour as "Power to the People" could make the late '70s sound like halcyon days for liberals. At that time, with a conservative tide rising, one that would crest in 1980, the show's choice for the salient left-wing triumph of the Carter years was...the anti-nuclear power movement. In the grand scheme of things, big deal.

Thursday night's installment about black America, "Right On!," was even more propagandistic. The Black Panther Party was touted by the likes of Chic's Nile Rodgers: "I had always been in...this movement and that movement, but...when I got into the Black Panthers, it was the first time I was in an organization [where] I felt we could do something." And just what was that "something"? Certainly not violent militancy - not once was that aspect of the Panthers ever mentioned.

This same blurring persisted throughout the hour, in which blacks, whether liberal or farther left - according to VH1, black conservatives didn't exist - were presented as monolithically pursuing the same causes for the same reasons. Angela Davis appeared in an old clip discussing how "masses of people are able to express their will," without a hint that Davis was a Communist devoted to a movement that shot people for expressing their will. As the show moved into the mid-'70s, legitimate opposition to racial quotas and forced busing was lumped with hatred and bigotry: graffiti reading "Kill Niggers" segued into videotape of Gerald Ford stating his disagreement with judicially imposed school integration, which was followed by film of a KKK march. You get the idea.

Naturally, this racist ugliness is then linked to Reagan. Writer Nelson George stated, "You can see the roots of the resegregation of America really happening during that period from '76...to '80. The backlash against the civil-rights movement began taking hold. The momentum for what became Reaganism was really being built during this period." Of course, VH1 didn't include the counterargument that the backlash wasn't against the original civil-rights movement, but against a corrupt extension of it that sought to limit freedom rather than extend it.

Ultimately, "VH1 Presents the '70s" was a large-scale act of denial. This militant and destructive and very loud left-wing minority in the '70s never managed to capture the imagination of the general public. Now as then, the left can't accept that fact.