Reviewing "People Like Us," the CBS documentary that created a flap between the network and the White Huse recently, Post television critic Tom Sahles wrote that its "effect . . . is to alter one's image of President Reagan from that of amiable boob to something more along the lines of callous cad." also, "it is did difficult to watch the program's stories of hardship and destitution and not invoke the visual memory of the president romping in the surf . . . in Barbados, and the distressing symbolism that goes with it: the president splashes in the lap of luxury while Americans go hungry."
The program, which appeared April 22, was narrated and written in part by Bill Moyers, a former White House press secretary. It portrayed four tragic cases: an Ohio man with cerebral palsey who had been dropped from disability rolls; a New Jersey woman forced to quit her job and go back on welfare in order that an ailing son would be eligible for government medical benefits; a 13-year-old Wisconsin girl who suffered two strokes, and a Milwaukee priest who supervises a food program for the poor.
Unquestionably, the episodes were chosen to demonstrate that Mr. Reagan's polcies are hurting the poor, despite a somewhat disingenous comment attributed later to Mr. Moyers: "I didn't believe that this was going to be interpreted as an attack on the administrtion, which it isn't." Obviously, Mr. Shales saw it as a broadside and justifiably so, Mr. Moyers was also quoted as saying, "We leaned over backwards not to juxtapose presidential statements with people's circumstances."
Principally because it was not given the opportunity to respond on the network, the White House characterized the program as "below the belt."
That's about the way a number of readers, including some Post staff and I, reacted to Mr. Shales' ad hominem comments about the president -"boob" . . . "cad" . . . "in the lap of luxury while Americans go hungry." His opinion that the program was "a killer," that it "could mark a turning point in American public opinion toward the Reagan administration and its cavalier treatment of the poor," is fair by the critic, although it could be argued that "cavalier treatment" is a judgement better left to political commentators. Elsewhere, when he says, "neither Reagan nor any of his army of gray spokesmen and ax-weilding henchmen is seen" seems more than necessary to make a simple point.
Mr. Shales is an estmable reviewer whose work is often praised and rarely faulted. All critics -book, theater, art, television -function within limits. Generally, this means that critics avoid competing with the topic under reveiw, thereby leaving no opening for the charge the critic is a hit man working on targets of convenience. The writ accorded a critic carries with it a firm requirement for relevance and fairness. It is exceeded if one takes advantage by simply letting off offensive steam.
Coincidentally, Post news coverage of the president in jBarbados and its fairness was the subject of a letter recently from Dorothy Brady, editor of her high school newspaper in Annandale. "I was angered," she wrote, "by the . . . photograph and article on the front page of the 10 April edition of The Post. Beside the photograph of our president swimming . . . in Barbados was the caption "Working Hard at Vacation in the Carribbean" which seemed to question whether the president was indeed doing his job."
This observant young editor touches on a small but significant matter of fairness. The media could do with a little less sanctimonoiusness, as in this case. Newsmen could at least have told their readers that they're down there on the beach, too, even if they don't choose to say, "The water's fine. wish you were here."