Good journalism can partly be measured by the numbers of hackles it raises, provided the other essential criteria are met. Tonight's edition of "Our Times With Bill Moyers," the CBS News series at 8:30 on Channel 9, seems likely to raise hackle upon hackle within the military-industrial establishment. To some, Pentagon denunciation is tantamount to divine endorsement, but there's more to the program than that.
"Pentagon/Underground," another taut and resolute "Our Times" report, is the profile of a movement and a mover, the latter being Dina Rasor, who is not so much a Pentagon "whistle-blower" as a liaison for Pentagon whistle-blowers, a conduit to the press and Congress. Her informants are worried Pentagon insiders who believe, in Moyers' words, that "poorly made weapons and bureaucratic rivalries are crippling our nation's defense."
Paul Hobin, a coworker at Rasor's Project on Military Procurement, goes so far--probably too far--as to say, "We couldn't be in any worse shape right now if the KGB were running the Pentagon." High-ranking defense department officials are intolerant of dissenting views, Rasor contends, and so insiders with documents that cast doubt on the safety or efficacy of new weapons make the documents available to Rasor ("out of desperation") and she makes them available to a coterie of favored reporters and, of course, "all three major networks."
Hawkishness and dovishness are beside the point here. Rasor is after "boondoggles and pork barrels," she says. She and her underground endeavor to show that the strong national defense advocated by politicians and promised by the defense department is but an illusion, and a perilous one.
Blame is laid not on whatever influence, undue or otherwise, is exerted by defense contractors, but instead on military officers in the Pentagon and an advancement system that encourages them to come up with costly new weapons projects the way traffic cops are encouraged to dole out tickets. Either that, says Rasor, or the system simply makes people in authority "numb to what's going on." The program doesn't deal with the MX missile or the B1 bomber, but concentrates instead on one of Rasor's pet targets, the M1 tank, a $20.3 billion lemon with such "chronic" documented problems, says Moyers, as a tendency to run out of gas in the midst of battle.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who appears to have made himself generously accessible to Moyers for this report, says, "The tank is fine, but it shouldn't have taken 20 years to develop it." He does not make forceful denials of the specific charges against it. Nor is Adm. Stephen Hofstattler particularly persuasive in defending the cruise missile, whose guidance system is claimed to be a clinker. Moyers points out that a test firing of the missile for the benefit of the CBS News camera had to be canceled nine times before it finally took place.
The camera went other places, too--into Weinberger's private dining room, where what Moyers calls "reciprocal stroking" is going on between Congress and the Pentagon; to a Pentagon briefing attended by Weinberger; and along with Rasor in her car to the Pentagon parking lot, where she vanishes from sight long enough to obtain a brown envelope from one of her informants.
Certain errors mar the program. Hofstattler is framed in one shot in a way that a hawkish Pentagon official might have been presented in a counterculture movie of the '60s--the admiral, his nameplate, a standing flag, Pentagon bric-a-brac--inviting ridicule of him. Further, in a hallway chat with Moyers, the admiral attempts to answer complaints about the cruise missile with a series of responses, but we only get to hear one of them. Moyers is vague on the background and motivations of Dina Rasor.
But "Pentagon/Underground," produced by Leslie Cockburn, sustains the impressive quality of the Moyers show, makes some welcome noise at a news organization that has perhaps grown too quiet (slews of lawsuits notwithstanding), and so worried one sponsor, General Motors, that the firm has withdrawn its commercials from the program. Moyers does not mention that the Senate last month voted 91 to 5 to establish an independent weapons testing office within the Defense Department; the House has yet to act, but this broadcast may help change that.
It has been a dozen years since "The Selling of the Pentagon" at CBS News. There are tough, high standards to uphold. Tonight's "Our Times" upholds them.