The book that disclosed that President Carter's briefing book had been obtained by the Reagan campaign before the 1980 presidential debate also recounts a "genteel espionage" episode by aides to President Reagan involving a controversial 1982 CBS television documentary.
The brief description in "Gambling with History," by Laurence I. Barrett, says that White House officials knew the names of the people featured in the program on poor people hurt by Reagan budget cuts before complaining publicly that the network would not give them the information. The documentary, "People Like Us," with Bill Moyers, which aired April 21, 1982, focused on three individuals who had lost Medicaid or disability benefits.
The day of the broadcast, David R. Gergen, the White House communications director, had a letter hand-delivered to CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter protesting that the network would not give administration officials a chance to respond to the program, or even supply them with an advance transcript or the names of the individuals on the show.
Gergen said he wanted the names "so that we could review those cases internally to determine whether they were accurately represented. That request was refused."
According to Barrett's book, Gergen's complaint "was disingenuous. The White House, through a back channel, had obtained the names several days earlier. A former associate of deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver's with friends at CBS performed that minor bit of genteel espionage."
The day after the broadcast, Gergen called in White House reporters and attacked the program as unfair and inaccurate. "Frankly this one was below the belt," he said in requesting a half-hour of prime time to present the administration's rebuttal. The network refused.
Gergen denied yesterday that he was being "disingenuous" in his complaints to CBS. He said he learned the names by reading a New York Daily News preview the morning the show was to air. "I feel confident in saying that whether or not someone else in the White House had the information, those of us who worked on the project did not," he said. Deaver could not be reached for comment.
While Barrett wrote that "the administration ended up doing nothing with the names it had obtained," Gergen said administration officials used the names to prepare a fact sheet criticizing the broadcast.
Gergen said he called CBS officials two days before the show to ask for time for an administration response. In his letter to Sauter the afternoon before the broadcast, Gergen said press previews showed the documentary "may be seriously misleading. Preliminary checks by HHS Health and Human Services and OMB Office of Management and Budget on the facts as presented in the press indicate that perhaps two of the hardship cases that are shown are rooted in actions taken by a previous administration and/or state governments--not the Reagan administration."
Pam Bailey, who was assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS and now works for Gergen, recalled that a Social Security field office sent the Daily News article to HHS headquarters in Washington.
Barrett declined to elaborate on his account. "He's entitled to his denial," Barrett said of Gergen. "It's all true. But I'm not prepared to embroider what's in the book. To do so might compromise a source."
Robert Chandler, senior vice president for documentaries and operations at CBS, yesterday said he was not aware of Barrett's anecdote.
As for the possibility that someone at CBS supplied the White House with the information, Chandler said, "To hear them White House officials talk, they don't have any friends at CBS."