Tonight's edition of "CBS Reports," "People Like Us," could mark a turning point in American public opinion toward the Reagan administration and its cavalier treatment of the poor. This could be the most influential network documentary since "Teddy," the 1979 Roger Mudd interview that effectively killed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's chances for the Democratic presidential nomination the following year.
Though probably not intended as a direct attack on administration policies, the effect of "People Like Us" is to alter one's image of President Reagan from that of well-meaning boob to something more along the lines of callous cad.
Neither Reagan nor any of his army of gray spokesmen and ax-wielding henchmen is seen on the report--at 8 on Channel 9--but it is difficult to watch the program's four stories of hardship and destitution and not invoke the visual memory of the president romping in the surf outside Claudette Colbert's house in Barbados, and the distressing symbolism that goes with it: The president splashes about in the lap of luxury while Americans go hungry. Even the people on this program, victims of Reaganomics all, are reluctant to say a word against him, but the program leaves one feeling that a very fragile bubble is just about to burst.
"These are people who have slipped through the safety net and are falling away," says correspondent Bill Moyers in his introduction. "In the great outcry about spending, some helpless people are getting hurt. No one knows how many." But the number of people isn't the issue. What is happening to those profiled shouldn't be happening to anybody, anywhere, and most of all, not here.
This program is a killer. Perhaps some of official Washington will be able to tear itself away from its white wine long enough to watch it. It tells its four stories eloquently and powerfully.
The first is about a man with cerebral palsy who lives with his wife and four children in Ohio and was dropped from the Social Security disability rolls, as part of Reaganesque cost-cutting measures, last year; bureaucrats decided, without examining him, that he was suddenly fit to take a desk job. The man almost weeps as he vows to Moyers that he will not give up his home in spite of the new crisis. In one heart-wrenching sequence, the camera captures the humiliation and degradation in the faces of the man and his wife as they sit quietly while a welfare worker phones a local charity in an effort to get them some hand-out food.
In New Jersey, a Hispanic woman who works part time, and who has a 13-year-old son who needs major surgery to avoid developing cancer, has been dropped from welfare and Medicaid as part of the new Reagan blood bath. The woman finds she is actually going to be penalized under revised rules for having gone back to work, so she is forced to quit her job and go back on welfare full time.
In Wisconsin, Moyers talks to the mother of a 13-year-old girl who has suffered two strokes and lies speechless in a coma. Because of Reagan-mandated changes in Medicaid rules, the girl must be taken from her home and the care of visiting nurses and placed in an institution. The camera is there on the day the child is taken away, as the mother cries, "I just can't take it." A nurse says of the insensitivity that caused this tragedy to occur, "It's going to make enemies out of our own people."
Finally, in Milwaukee, Moyers visits a church which provides food for the downtrodden and has seen the demand for such charity double in the past year. This would seem an example of Reagan's oft-invoked private sector moving into the breach left by the government's abdication of reponsibility to the disadvantaged. But a volunteer at the church notes of the Reagan economic czars, "They're asking the wrong people to sacrifice."
Father Steve Gliko, who supervises the volunteer program, tells Moyers, "It's unfair to put any poor person in the precarious situation of having to depend on the generous whims of the wealthy." Moyers quotes the Reagan contention that the "truly needy" are being provided for. "The American citizen who can say that," Gliko responds, "is blind."
The program also puts the lie to the pet Reagan myth that if we can just eliminate welfare cheating, everything about the economy will be hunky-dory (and we'll be able to afford Reagan's trillion-dollar defense budget). Moyers says far more revenue is lost through under-reporting of income to the IRS than through welfare cheating, that the government is bilked out of seven times the welfare budget by tax cheating each year. A lawyer retained by the Ohio man with cerebral palsy says of welfare money, "The people who are the so-called cheats are the ones that are still getting it. They are the ones who know how the system works."
Moyers is such a skillful and resourceful journalist that it is difficult to pinpoint his strongest suit; he wrote the script for the program with producer-director Judy Towers Reemtsma. But where he shines most is probably in the interviews with the victims, whom he never patronizes. Moyers has his detractors, and even his fallibilities, but damn, he's good. He may be The Best.
"People Like Us" was brilliantly shot by Tom Spain and Rick Thompson, and edited by Merle Worth. This documentation of a shameful moment for America constitutes another proud hour for CBS News and, especially, "CBS Reports."
"Fortress Israel," the ABC News Closeup at 10 tonight on Channel 7, is a thoughtful yet strangely numbing examination of increased tensions in the Mideast. Almost immediately it plunges into the political complexities of the West Bank and the Sinai--matters most Americans simply do not understand--and fails to make them more manageable or immediate.
The human side of the story gets put off, but when it finally appears, it produces troubling, disheartening material that grimly supports the program's contention that another big explosion in the area is imminent. Among those interviewed are Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon ("I can assure you that Israel will exist forever"); Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jersualem, and his brave, eloquent wife, Shoshana; and, most movingly, Auschwitz survivors Emile and Elana Schroenik, who came to Israel in 1949 with their two daughters, who are also interviewed.
One of the daughters looks out on the horizon and recalls the three times her husband had to fight to preserve what there is of Israeli security; at that moment, producer-director Judy Crichton cuts to 1973 footage of planes screaming across the sky during a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. It's stunning editing, but too much of the program is dominated by the narration of correspondent Marshall Frady, who is not a compelling presence and even seems to be putting the people he interviews to sleep.
Three times in the course of the program, Frady is identified on screen with a superimposed legend that includes the ABC News logo, in addition to his screen credit at the beginning of the program. ABC News still seems more interested in building stars than in relaying information of value. The program never fully answers the essential question, What is it like to live there? Instead it rattles off Fradyisms like "death-lock" and "primal trauma" and such windy assessments as:
"Over those lives, over Israel itself, there has begun to hang a dark question: Can a passion for security and survival take on an obsessiveness that actually threatens to consume what it meant to save?" Too often, "Fortress Israel" merely illustrates a monologue that is all too emptily wordy.
There certainly is a place in television for informational programming as breezy and shiny as "Media Probes," though some people may find too little in the show's video smorgasbord to chew on. The first of eight half-hour "Probes" airs tonight, very airily indeed, at 8 on Channel 26.
The subject of the first show is photography, and the adroit host for the overview is the much-photographed Cheryl Tiegs. Producer-director Mickey Lemle drops in on five photographers and looks at the ways they look at, and capture, little nooks of life, starting with Pulitzer Prize winner and former White House photographer David Hume Kennerly.
Kennerly says a photographer has to be something of a "con man" and adds, "I think I'm one of the best." Then, zip, we're off on assignment with plucky Mary DiBiase of the New York Daily News, as she heads for a stakeout or snaps a few hot weather shots of New Yorkers lazing about in what they call, to stretch a term, the outdoors. "Mary is a gutsy little gal," her editor says. High praise, that.
Another photographer artfully shoots a bottle of Drambuie for a magazine ad and the rather self-aggrandizing Bruce Davidson describes how he went from fashion froufrou to such socially conscious projects as "East 100th Street." The final probee is Gil Amaral, a crisply professional wedding photographer who tells one happy customer, "I couldn't pick a more elegant bride." We see the pictures being taken and the happy subjects ogling them later. "Oh Jack, you should be in movies," one woman gushes to the groom.
In future weeks, "Media Probes" will look, or glance, at TV news (with John Cameron Swayze the genial host, and a rare interview with local news consultant Frank Magid), political commercials (with Washington Post columnist Mark Shields as guide) and soap operas. This is bite-size television, but that doesn't mean there's no nourishment to it; "Media Probes" is the Lean Cuisine of TV documentaries.
'Bad Moon Rising'
"Bad Moon Rising" is essential viewing only for those who think there might be something to be said for bigotry and racial hatred; the documentary, offensive in its tub-thumping amateurishness, keeps coming out four-square against evil. In the process, it trivializes a disturbing subject, an apparent increase in America of racial and religious intolerance in its more virulent and violent forms.
"Apparent," however, is a necessary qualifier in discussing the program--to be seen at 10 tonight on Channel 26--since the script is heavily punctuated with phrases like "appears to be on the rise," "there seems to have been" and "We may be entering a period" of escalated overt racism. There is the possibility that a program like this will contribute to its prophecy merely by repeating it. Individual acts of hate-motivated vandalism are recounted, but no solid evidence of a trend is offered and, worse, the possible socioeconomic causes of such a trend go unexplored.
The narrator-reporter, Stephen Talbot (an "award-winning television journalist," according to PBS, but this is a field in which it is hard not to win an award), keeps using words like "vicious" and "viciously" where they are clearly redundant as he surveys such phenomena as a seeming reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. The hysterical tone gets wearing so quickly that what may indeed be a serious problem is shrieked into insignificance.
The filmmakers are not skilled enough to justify waving so much foul linen in the camera's face, and they have their boorish side, as well. The bouncy and playful Creedence Clearwater song "Bad Moon Rising" is used to accompany shots of racial and anti-Semitic violence at the open and close of the program. The last time this tune was used in a film, it accompanied the transformation of man into beast in "An American Werewolf in London" and was meant as a joke.