Bill Moyers forgets one thing: There is only one Bill Moyers. He thinks prime-time television should be filled with documentaries as potent, accomplished and thoughtful as "CBS Reports: Whose America Is It?," an hour on the immigration crisis, with Moyers as correspondent and guiding sensibility, which airs at 8 tonight on Channel 9.
The broadcast has been exemplarily written, directed, photographed and produced by an ace CBS team (it would be art, except it contains useful information), but subtract Moyers from it and you have a far less compelling experience. Moyers can be relied upon regularly to decry the cult of personality in television journalism, yet it is the imposition of his personality -- his sensibilities and conscientiousness -- that makes "Whose America" powerful and memorable.
On the other hand, there are other paths to excellence in broadcast journalism, and CBS News takes one of them tonight with another edition of its beautifully crafted and rabidly maligned new magazine show "West 57th," at 10 on Channel 9.
A viewer might think that if CBS were going to program two news hours in one night of prime time, which is an arrogant mistake to begin with, the decision-makers would at least place them compatibly back-to-back. No. At 9, CBS will repeat an old country-western special with Barbara Mandrell. The Moyers program has thus been placed against "The A-Team," where it has little chance to lure viewers, and at the same time CBS programmers have been consistent with their policy of undermining "West 57th" with the weakest possible lead-in programming.
This nutty network counterprograms against itself. When you look at imbecilic scheduling like tonight's, or at the parade of movie loser lead-ins with which CBS has shackled "West 57th" every week since its premiere, you can reach one of two conclusions: Either CBS programmers are inept or they want "West 57th" to fail. Why would a network sabotage its own program? A successful news broadcast is much more troublesome to a network, including its legal department, than a successful entertainment program is.
CBS Entertainment would not be pleased to lose another hour of prime time to CBS News, which already outperforms the entertainment division every single week with the hard-charging warhorse "60 Minutes." Some industry insiders see the controversy over "West 57th," with its functional, stylistic modernism and youth-luring story menu, as a battle between the old guard and the new guard at CBS News. To be sure, the program has its virulent in-house detractors. But that's not the real fight. The real fight is between news and entertainment, one of the oldest fights in commercial television.
If news wins this one, the viewership and the network will be better for it, even if neither quite realizes it at once. Television will be better for it, too.
Some print critics of "West 57th," who have ludicrously charged the program with everything from trivialization to faked footage to racism, are doing the network bosses' work for them. Saints preserve us from philistines who imagine themselves to be on a crusade against philistinism.
The Moyers broadcast, meanwhile, is above reproach but not innocuous. Producer-director and cowriter Elena Mannes joins with Moyers to paint a picture of poignant clarity. "The golden door has turned to barbed wire," Moyers says, for thousands of tired and poor attempting to enter an America whose open invitation is now being compromised by an array of harsh realities. The situation is not helped by federal policy that Moyers describes as "immigration anarchy, full of holes and hypocrisy."
He goes along with the border patrol as it raids a Dallas neighborhood, hoping to turn up illegals -- "undocumented" workers -- and to businesses suspected of employing them. This occurs in the last segment of the program, which deals with the immigrant labor dilemma; companies are eager to hire immigrant workers, documented or not, so they can pay lower wages and underbid on contracts. Then union representatives show up at construction sites with video gear to record an intrusion on the work force they justifiably see as a threat.
Conflicts are as basic as language. In the first segment, Moyers talks with worried members of the U.S. English movement, who see the nation drifting into bilingualism. He accompanies a member of the group as she argues with a Hispanic shopkeeper and visits a rally where one young recruit wears an "I English" banner over his Notre Dame T-shirt. Two admirable sisters recall how they successfully sued a cleaning firm that refused even to consider hiring them because they could not speak Spanish.
The United States will spend $150 million this year trying to keep people who want to cross it on the other side of the Mexican border, Moyers reports, and the cameras join a border patrol as it corrals another group of would-be Americans. We see a flashlight panning trees and brush and hear the whispered voices of the federales. A woman, apparently from El Salvador, tells Moyers how she finally made it in after being twice deported, once arrested, and paying a "coyote," or smuggler, $3,500 to secure a rather hazardous sort of safe passage.
Though by no means flashy or jivey, this Moyers report is not off-puttingly austere, either. In one sequence, an employer puts his hand over the CBS camera! Music is used under the opening tease! Will these wildly theatrical flourishes offend all those vigilant news purists out there in cloud cuckoo-land? They've certainly been provoked by the wit and sizzle of "West 57th," whose exercised detractors include venerable alumni of CBS News, tireless ethical gatekeepers all.
There are five segments on tonight's edition of the show and nothing tacky about any of them; nor does any seem a threat to truth, justice or the American way. The first piece is solid "60 Minutes" stuff: a report on 20 million pre-1980 Fords roaming the streets with an apparent structural defect in the transmission that could allow the cars to shift from park into reverse and wreak havoc. Much already has been wreaked, and the report, produced by Margaret Drain, recounts it with proper urgency.
This is followed by an engaging profile of Anjelica Huston, daughter of director John and granddaughter of actor Walter, who seems to have come into her own with her role in the film "Prizzi's Honor," which papa directed and which costars her longtime cohabitant Jack Nicholson. Huston pe re, looking genial but ill, says of his daughter's liaison, "They've been together longer than any single one of my marriages."
Later in the program, reporter Bob Sirott rides herd with the Dead Heads, intensely loyal followers of the '60s rock band the Grateful Dead and the nostalgic mindset they embody. "Music is freedom, in and from time," one of the bearded faithful declares; another says, " 'Stoned' is a relative term. I'm high on life, as they say." The final piece concerns the problem of juvenile arson.
But the third segment is the best and strongest on the show: "The Executioner," produced by NBC News "Weekend" graduate Craig Leake, and as close to a televised execution as any TV report on capital punishment is likely to get. Calmly and soberly, the team that carries out executions at Florida State Prison discusses the work it does with the electric chair. We see the chair, the gallery where the 24 witnesses sit, and everything but the face of the executioner himself, who did not want to be identifiable. He is paid $150 per execution, the power supplied by an onsite generator so as to absolve the local electric company of responsibility.
Nothing in reporter John Ferrugia's commentary nudges us emotionally or politically one way or the other, but the pictures, and the words of the participants, carry tremendous force. Leake is not the type to clobber you with technique. One touch, however, is strikingly deft; before fade-out, he holds the shot of a prison official's face for just a few seconds after the man has said he feels no remorse following an execution. Just a few telling seconds.
CBS has been diligent about crippling "West 57th," and also about hiding the fact that it has achieved some measure of success. Ratings have certainly been low by prime-time "hit" standards, yet week after week "West 57th" has considerably outperformed whatever program preceded it on the network, which means viewers have sought it out. According to figures being circulated within the news division, "West 57th's" Aug. 27 broadcast registered a 36 percent improvement over its lead-in in Nielsen rating share points. That was the highest such advantage enjoyed by any program on the network that week.
"West 57th" has its problems. Often the introductions for pieces fail to establish context. With the exception of Ferrugia, the reporters on the show all seem to be wandering about rather than pursuing news, but then young reporters are always at a disadvantage on TV, where a few facial wrinkles seem to enhance on-camera credibility. Executive producer Andrew Lack appears to have toned down the show from its gangbusters premiere, but it still has a welcome air of brash audacity.
No, it is definitely not the program for people who hate television, but then, how could it be, when it was so obviously made by people who love it?