“Burning with a Deadly Heat”: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War


The Cold War isn’t thawing; it’s burning with a deadly heat. - Richard M. Nixon

Editor's Introduction

‘Burning with a Deadly Heat’: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War is the first in a series of AAPB exhibits that focuses on programs available in the PBS NewsHour Collection. In 2016, the Council on Library and Information Resources awarded a grant to WGBH, the Library of Congress, and the Greater Washington Educational Television Authority (WETA) to digitize, preserve and make publicly accessible the PBS NewsHour Collection from 1975 - 2007. In 2018 and 2019, the Internet Archive provided copies of episodes recorded off-air from 2009 - 2019. The Collection includes nearly 15,000 episodes of the NewsHour and its predecessor programs from October 1975 to September 2019, including The Robert MacNeil Report (1975 - 1976), The MacNeil/Lehrer Report (1976 – 1983), The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (1983 – 1995), The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (1995 – 2009), and the PBS NewsHour (2009 - 2019).

Figure 1. Collage of NewsHour coverage of Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan.
Figure 1. Collage of NewsHour coverage of Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan.

On Monday evening at 7:30pm on October 20, 1975, public television viewers in New York City were treated to an experiment in television. Three weeks later, New York Times television columnist John J. O’Connor announced, “There’s a new public-affairs program in town, and it is rapidly proving to be one of the more significant and solid developments in television news.”1 That program, The Robert MacNeil Report, produced by New York public broadcaster WNET, aired daily following the network nightly news shows and devoted 30 minutes each weekday night to an in-depth discussion of one issue of note. Robert MacNeil co-anchored from New York with his colleague, correspondent Jim Lehrer, situated in Washington. Two years earlier, MacNeil and Lehrer had co-anchored public television’s coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings that included commentary and analysis with experts, and interviews with participants during breaks. Nightly rebroadcasts had solidified in the minds of many Americans a role for public television to broadcast news and public affairs programs that were presented fairly. After their success, MacNeil and Lehrer saw the need for a nightly national news program on public television, and in 1975, WNET hired MacNeil for that purpose and gave him editorial control of the program. MacNeil then recommended hiring Lehrer. Within a few months after its debut, PBS offered the program to stations across the country. MacNeil stated, “It’s the only program that any of us know about which takes one story each show and examines it in depth…. Basically, we are trying to fulfill the function that analysis and opinion/editorial pages perform for newspapers.”2 After its first season, the program returned with a new name, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, as WETA, the PBS Washington affiliate, began co-producing with WNET. In September 1983, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour debuted, marking another landmark in news broadcasts: the first hour-long nightly news program. When Robert MacNeil retired in 1995, the name changed to The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. In 2009, the name became the PBS NewsHour when Lehrer began to co-anchor with other correspondents on a regular basis. PBS NewsHour Weekend debuted as a half-hour program on September 7, 2013. Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff became the NewsHour’s regular co-anchors on September 9, 2013, the first pairing for national evening news shows of two women in that role. Following Ifill’s death in 2016, Woodruff became sole regular anchor.

Expansion to one hour in 1983 allowed airing of taped reports from around the nation and the world along with segments devoted to international affairs, science, the economy, defense, the environment, health and medicine, books, the arts, and the humanities. With 57 minutes per program, compared with 22 minutes or less in commercial evening news programs, the NewsHour provided a forum for newsmakers and experts in many fields to present their views at length. MacNeil characterized the hour-long program as an alternative to network shows that “hype the news to make it seem vital, important.” He and his colleagues, he said, wanted the NewsHour “to continue being a place where the news is allowed to breathe, where we can calmly, intelligently look at what has happened, what it means and why it is important.”3

The NewsHour has been praised by the New York Times for its “balance, sobriety, analysis and a determination to talk about important events in a way commensurate with their importance.”4 In 1982, Time magazine called the series “TV’s best discussion of public affairs.” A later Gallup Poll found the NewsHour the “most believed” American news program. The series has won hundreds of awards.5

‘Burning with a Deadly Heat’: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War explores common themes that emerged as The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour covered Cold War-era conflicts in Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan, followed by a breakdown of how the Report and NewsHour covered each individual war. The exhibit also includes background essays related to each conflict that provide context for the coverage. ‘Burning with a Deadly Heat’ was curated by Alyssa Knapp, a 2021 Library of Congress Junior Fellow and graduate student in the UCLA Masters of Library and Information Science program. We are grateful to present and former NewsHour correspondents and producers Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Jeff Goldman, Annette Miller, Susan Mills, and Judy Woodruff and to an anonymous reviewer for their guidance and help.

Introduction to the Four Proxy Wars

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began shortly after World War II came to a close. The war had catapulted the two countries to global superpower status, and their struggle to control the newly freed Nazi-occupied territories would escalate into a conflict of worldwide proportions as each state attempted to promote its political ideology and interests, and spread its influence.

Broadly, the first phase of the Cold War can be defined as containment, a policy adopted in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman aimed at containing communism to the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.6 In an address to Congress, Truman defined containment as a policy “to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.”7 The era of containment, occurring as European nations relinquished control over their colonies, was marked by American attempts to stop the spread of communism through military intervention, most notably in Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1965-1973). During this period, tensions between the two superpowers were high, and the world held its breath as two countries came close to nuclear war during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.8 After years of tension and fear, efforts began in the early 1970s to de-escalate the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, a policy known as détente.9 The period of détente, which lasted through the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, and Carter, saw an expansion of trade between the two countries as well as agreements to reduce nuclear arms arsenals on both sides.10 Détente officially ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and tensions between the two countries once again increased through the early 1980s under the Reagan administration and its aggressive anti-Soviet policies.11 In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and, in an attempt to save the crumbling state, implemented policies of openness (known as glasnost) and reform (perestroika).12 Ultimately, however, the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, finally marking the end of the long-lasting Cold War.

Although the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the political and ideological struggle of the Cold War for more than four decades, the conflict never reached the level of outright combat between the two superpowers. Despite the lack of direct fighting, the two powers battled for ideological dominance of the world by intervening in the politics and economies of other countries. Civil wars broke out across the globe, with one side receiving arms and support from the United States and the other side getting the same from the Soviet Union. In this way, American and Soviet weapons and money met on the battlefields of the world without the two powers ever directly waging war on one another.

As Soviet intelligence officer Nikolai Leonov put it, “The destiny of world confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, between Capitalism and Socialism, would be resolved in the Third World.”13 These conflicts became known as the Proxy Wars, or “Hot” Wars, of the Cold War. And while there were many proxy wars across the world in the Cold War period, this exhibition focuses in particular on the conflicts in Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan and how each of these wars was covered in real time by PBS NewsHour predecessor programs, mainly The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

MacNeil/Lehrer Report and NewsHour Coverage

The proxy wars addressed in this exhibition were chosen not only because of the extensive attention paid to each by the NewsHour, but also because they represent how the Cold War impacted diverse areas across the globe and continues to play a part in the politics of today. These countries also were chosen to represent a variety of journalistic techniques and strategies employed by the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and NewsHour while covering these specific wars. The ability to score high-profile interviews is particularly on display during the proxy war coverage. Guests ranged from rebel leaders fighting in Afghanistan and Angola to the presidents of Nicaragua and El Salvador, with one NewsHour producer even going so far as to befriend the wife of Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte in order to secure an interview with him.14

These four conflicts also exemplify how the Report and the NewsHour approached covering wars both near and far. For El Salvador and Nicaragua, the proximity to the United States allowed the show to send correspondents into the field in these countries; in Angola and Afghanistan, conflicts that were inaccessible to NewsHour reporters, the show both utilized footage of outside journalists and secured representatives of those conflicts in the United States to be interviewed on air.

The Report and the NewsHour were uniquely positioned to cover these complex conflicts in a way that was both understandable to the public and did justice to the many nuances of war. While commercial network and cable news programs were driven by ratings and interrupted by advertisements, the Report and the NewsHour had the freedom to dedicate entire half-hour programs and lengthy segments of the hour-long show to unpacking the tangled web of history, cultures, economies, and policies at play in each of these countries. Time would prove critical to the program’s success in covering the proxy wars. In control of how they spent each minute, the anchors ensured each guest was able to fully express their opinions, address critiques, and leave feeling as if they had been well represented. This format allowed regular appearances by experts, combatants, and high profile political leaders.

Coverage of each war varied depending on the nature of the conflict, the history of the region, and the extent of American involvement. Despite these differences, which are explored further below, several underlying themes run through the coverage of all four conflicts: the impact of the Vietnam War on American consciousness and policy, and the question of America’s moral obligations to interfere –or not—in the outside world.

The Robert MacNeil Report, the first iteration of what is now the PBS NewsHour, began in October 1975, only months after the nation’s exit from Vietnam, with America having failed to preserve a non-Communist South Vietnam. The war had been long, difficult, and unpopular; it cost more than 58,000 American lives, and by its end, most Americans believed that entering into the conflict had been a mistake.15 It was against this background that a war-scarred nation looked at the conflicts in Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Afghanistan. Across the board, fears were raised that American involvement in any of the conflicts could evolve into a “new Vietnam,” another taxing, uphill battle for the American people. Ironically, comparisons to Vietnam were especially strong in the coverage of Afghanistan, where the news anchors and political guests alike often related the Soviet Union’s position in Afghanistan to that of the United States’ in Vietnam.

Whether the United States had a moral obligation to interfere or stay neutral in the political crises of other countries was another common theme throughout the coverage of each conflict. Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, and other correspondents pushed their guests—and the American people—to set the parameters of American morality and tolerance by forcing them to confront the ambiguities of war during a time when global conflicts often were painted by governments as simple good vs. evil affairs. In a time of global polarization, when one side would do nearly anything to stop the other, the NewsHour forced viewers to consider whether the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. governments should be overlooked in the name of stopping the spread of Soviet influence.

The proxy wars are presented in four sections in chronological order from the start date of each conflict. Each section begins with an essay presenting the historical context of the war, followed by an analysis of the coverage. Click on the embedded links to view the discussed segments.

Next: Angolan Civil War (1975-2002)