CNN and Fox News Documentaries Duke It Out Sunday Nights

Documentaries on basic cable television are making a comeback, and tonight brings a chance to see three of them on CNN and the Fox News Channel.  Last Sunday, CNN, which is struggling during the week, succeeded on the weekend with the second airing of two of its latest new documentary series (or docu-series, as they are now called), The Kennedys and Pope.  Last Sunday, American Dynasties: The Kennedys (part 2 of 6) at 9 P.M. E.T. trounced the competition on Fox News and MSNBC in both total viewers and the 25- to 54-year old demo, while Pope (part 2 of 6) on CNN at 10 P.M. also won its time slot.

The Kennedy family, Hyannisport, Massachusetts pose after the 1960 election.

The Kennedys, which CNN has been heavily promoting since last year, is largely another rehash of the sanitized and airbrushed formula that has been applied to the nation's #1 political dynasty since it first emerged on the scene in a new wave P.R. onslaught in the 1950s.  More than half a century has passed, however, and certain unsavory details can no longer be totally ignored, like JFK's seriously ill health, but other disturbing facts are still not emphasized.  The career and personal life of Kennedy dynasty patriarch Joseph P., Sr., for instance, is largely glossed over, with no mention of his flagrant and hypocritical extramarital womanizing and the questionable methods he employed to amass his and his heirs' impressive fortune.  The primary value in the series so far is the first appearance of never before seen color home movies of the Kennedys at play dating from the 1940s.

Pope Alexander (1431-1503) from CNN's Pope.

CNN's ambitious 6-part series Pope is an attempt to review the two-millennia-long story of "the most powerful man [or men] in history."  The stunning photography – of impressive locations including the Vatican, papal appearances before huge audiences, historic churches, and Renaissance art – is the most compelling part of the production.  Not everyone, however – especially among leading Catholic voices – is happy with the series. In the National Catholic Register on March 23, Kathy Schiffer wrote:

I've been watching Pope for the last two weeks (and have previewed two more episodes); and I am disappointed that what might have been an insightful Lenten series has been populated by experts who are not Catholic, who display an animosity toward traditional teachings or who simply misunderstand the Church.

Both The Kennedys and Pope make extensive use of new, slickly produced dramatic re-enactments of historic events using actors and models.  This is a relatively new and very annoying technique that renders a documentary's credibility and accuracy highly questionable, although it has emerged as a common convention that program producers apparently feel is required to attract modern audiences.  The Kennedys' frequent use of fast cuts between newly produced re-enactments with actors and historic footage is particularly irksome and will undoubtedly mislead and confuse many viewers, especially ones who are not paying close attention to what's on the screen.  This increasingly common technique has even found its way into many recent documentaries on PBS, which used to aim for the high road – for example, in Ken Burns's classic first series, The Civil War (1990), which, during its unprecedented 11-and-a-half-hour runtime, employed no re-enactments.

Speaking of the Civil War period, Fox News is premiering season three of its popular Legends & Lies franchise Sunday night at 8 P.M. E.T.  This season's subject is the Civil War.  According to a news release provided by Fox News:

Legends & Lies: The Civil War, will revisit the stories of key characters during the Civil War, including President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Commander of the Confederate Army Robert E. Lee, in addition to other notable names who played a key role in the nation's history during the mid-1800s.  The 12-episode season will kick off with "John Brown: This Guilty Land," which spotlights radical abolitionist John Brown as he raids Harpers Ferry, setting the scene for the Civil War.

Brian Kilmeade (R) with his Fox & Friends co-hosts Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt.

Legends & Lies premiered in the spring of 2015, and its first two seasons (a total of 22 episodes) were executive produced by Bill O'Reilly, who was forced to leave Fox News last April.  The first season presented bios of famous and infamous figures of the Real West.  Season two focused on the patriots of the American Revolution.  O'Reilly was heavily involved in the production and promotion of both seasons, with occasional on-camera appearances and the production of spin-off books that he co-wrote, titled Bill O'Reilly's Legends & Lies.  It does not appear that seasons 1 and 2 ever made it to DVD.

This time around, with O'Reilly gone and evidently considered persona non grata at Fox News, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox & Friends (M-F 6-9 A.M. E.T.) and also the Brian Kilmeade Show daily on Fox News Radio (9 A.M.-12 noon E.T.), is the host of the series.  Kilmeade appears to be a logical choice, since he has co-authored several best-selling historical books of his own, including his most recent oneThomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History.

The Legends & Lies franchise, like its cohorts on CNN, is replete with dramatic re-enactments of historic events, interspersed with shots of period archival material and clips of new interviews with historians.  If this mix of the new with the old is your cup of tea, Legends & Lies is about as good as it gets.

Actor John Stober portrays abolitionist John Brown, Legends & Lies, Season 3, Episode 1.

For the new season, the selection of notables – both "heroes and villains" –  from the Civil War period, which remains hotly controversial, is an interesting and perhaps a bold choice, especially in light of the fact that several prominent figures representing the Confederacy are included.  There seems to be the possibility at least for an up-to-date review or a revision of many of that period's divisive issues that persist and that are being used in some quarters today to divide Americans along ideological and political lines, as in the efforts to force the removal of statues honoring Confederate war heroes.

On March 22, Kilmeade discussed the new series on his own Fox & Friends morning show.  He described it as "phenomenal, unbelievable, and so informative."  (Video clip here.)  He was joined by a consultant for the series, David Eisenbach, Ph.D., a historian who has worked in the past on documentary series for the History Channel.  Eisenbach is a registered Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for elected office and he came across well during his three-minute-long appearance on Fox & Friends.

Kilmeade: This is an important time, especially as we debate what's going on with these [Civil War] statues, and going back to the Civil War.  What does it mean to you, at this point in American history?

Eisenbach: We're a nation that's divided, but there was a time when we were even more divided than we are now.  And that's the lead up to the Civil War.

Although O'Reilly, whose Fox News show The O'Reilly Factor was the #1 rated program on all of cable news for 15 years, has vanished from the channel (with one exception when he appeared with Sean Hannity last September 26), the Fox News website still has a range of unredacted archived material relating to the first two seasons of Legends & Lies, including 22 video clips.  One of the videos features O'Reilly promoting season 2 during a June 3, 2016 appearance on the program hosted by Greta Van Susteren, who has also left the channel.  For a look back at Fox News not so long ago, check out the clip – and the extensive excerpts of previous Legends & Lies episodes available here.

On Cable News: Sunday March 25 – All times Eastern

8 and 11 P.M. Fox News Channel Legends & Lies: The Civil War premiere

9 P.M. and 12 A.M. CNN The Kennedys Part 3

10 P.M. and 1 A.M. CNN Pope Part 3

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture.  He is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  Follow Peter on Twitter at @pchowka.

If you experience technical problems, please write to