ABC News Closeup promises "a story of murder, torture and repression" in its opening statement tonight - and delivers the goods. But the true subject of this hour-long documentary - at 10 o'clock on Channel 7 - is noting less than an accusation of hypocrisy leveled against the president of the United States and his foreign policy helpers.
In three separate and curiously uneven segments, the ABC production team examines human rights abuses in Iran, Chile and the Philippines, and the Carter adminstration's continuing support for those nations. ABC builds a strong case that the human rights program Candidate Carter promised is being applied "inconsistently" by President Carter.
Courage and resourcefulness have gone into the making of the program by producer Tom Bywaters and correspondent William Sherman, and into the decision by a commercial television network to take on the White House frontally. Its brief documentation of torture and repression in the three countries achieves impact without being lurid or upsetting.
But it is the tight focus that Closeup devotes to its own reporting of Torture, and its loose handling of Politics, that eventually defeats the show's ambition to break new ground in this highly controversial area.
"The politics of Torture" as seen by ABC is essentially an exercise in juxtaposition. Footage of Vice President Mondale signing aid agreements with President Marcos in Manila is spliced into interviews with jailed Phillippino activists. The shah and Carter blink back tears together as tear gas drifts over the White House lawn, just before we are plunged into the middle of the mass uprising now going on in Tehran.
In the tautest, sharpest segment, ABC captures an aura of evil that clings to Pinochet. When we see the Chilean dictator and Carter together, the president's credibiity on human rights is all but assassinated electronically.
Ultimately, however, the program fails to develop the political sense of the constraints and possibilities of the policy process that is at te center of te show.
It is the great gap between Carter's promises on human rights, which were radically different than those of his predecessors, and his accomplishments in these three countries, that punctures the presidential balloon. ABC poses the contrast between campaign idealism and the reality of "national security" starkly, but fails to go beyond and explore standards for reconciling this inevitable government conflict.
Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Pat Derian, the administration's top human rights official, are put on camera more to demonstrate fairness than to establish any sense of the bureaucratic hauling and pulling that goes into the making of a global policy. They can offer only weak, spiritless defenses against the program's Criticisms.
The producers might better have invited the State Department's top man for Pacific affairs, Richard Holbrooke, to explain why he today justifies continuing support to Marcos on national security grounds that he found deficient when offered by Henry Kissinger. Hre bases that Kissinger wanted kept in the Phillippines are the same bases that Holbrooke argues should be kept in the Philippines, human rights or no.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of "The Politics of Torture" is the muted suggestion that there is also an Econimics of Torture. An aggressive, spirited exchange between Assistant Reeasury Secretary Fred Bergsten and Sherman establishes that nay econimic leverage the Carter adminstration possesses has been used to shore up rather than punish Marcos.
Better yet is a brief discusion of the role of American privatre enterprise in Pinochet's experiment in ruling Chile. Walt Wriston, board chairman of First National City Bank, adamantly insists that business has to operate free of government policy considerations abroad. To prove his point, he cites a lenghty quote frm an expert on that subject who agrees with Wriston. The expert: Jimmy Carter.