Glenn bio is publicity TV, not public TV Review: With an unabashed puff piece on the astronaut-senator, PBS shows that some of the space he explored has gotten between its ears.

October 28, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

So, PBS actually can do nonfiction television that's every bit as superficial and false as the network newsmagazines.

After seeing David Sutherland's "The Farmer's Wife," Orlando Bagwell's "Africans in America" and coming biographies of Leonard Bernstein and Frank Lloyd Wright, I was starting to believe every PBS documentary was a little bit of heaven.

But now comes "John Glenn: American Hero," a one-hour quickie bio that reminds you how bad public television can be when it starts making compromises.

The big compromise is that "American Hero" is not a pure public television production. It is a joint effort by Newsweek Productions, a commercial enterprise, and KCET, the Los Angeles public television station. KCET is not one of the stronger producing stations when it comes to nonfiction anyway, and Newsweek only makes matters worse by bringing some of the worst tendencies of commercial television news to the table.

With its lack of balance, depth and context for Glenn's life and career, the KCET-Newsweek marriage looks more like something a Newsweek-owned local affiliate than it does a national PBS production. Oh, yeah, and the money here is from the Boeing Company, which has just a teeny potential conflict of interest, don't you think, when it comes to anything connected with government money and flight.

What you have here is about 55 minutes of film -- 38 of which are a blind celebration of Glenn's life and career -- Hagiography 101.

That little problem he had with the Senate Ethics Committee a few years back after he set up a lunch between savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating and soon-to-be-disgraced Speaker of the House Jim Wright is glossed over. Any criticism of tomorrow's flight as publicity for the space program or grandstanding by Glenn is utterly dismissed.

He's doing it all for science -- and science only -- we are told.

What is most maddening about "American Hero" is the last 17 minutes, which come out of nowhere and is an equally blind and one-sided celebration of the $25 billion space station.

The filmmakers try to link it to the aura of heroism surrounding Glenn, but you wonder why nearly one-third of a Glenn biography is spent in what is essentially a lobbying effort for the space station. Could someone be using public television to lobby Glenn's former colleagues in Congress?

Give PBS some credit for trying to be timely with this biography on the eve of the launch.

But we have more than enough channels that sacrifice smarts and integrity for the quick and dirty. We deserve better from PBS -- lots better.

And we have liftoff

What: "John Glenn: American Hero"

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) Tomorrow's launch is scheduled for 2 p.m. The TV coverage includes:

CNN (starting at 1 p.m.): Features Walter Cronkite along with Miles O'Brien

Discovery (1: 30 p.m.): Steve Aveson anchors, with former astronauts Jerry Linenger and Blaine Hammond

Fox News (1 p.m.): Jon Scott, with former astronaut James Lovell MSNBC (1 p.m.): Features Brian Williams

ABC (1: 30 p.m.): Peter Jennings, with former astronauts Norm Daggart and Wally Schirra

NBC (1: 30 p.m.): Tom Brokaw, with former astronaut Scott Carpenter

CBS (1: 30 p.m.): Dan Rather, with former astronaut Gordon Cooper

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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