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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Moyers Measures Lies of the Land in 'Secret Government'

November 04, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The lies people tell.

Ronald Reagan says one thing today, another tomorrow, and no one seems to care. Joe Biden fudges and fibs, and the media are attacked for reporting it. Ollie North admits lying to a congressional committee, says he did it for his country, then is celebrated by much of America. Those holy men Jerry Falwell and Jim Bakker accuse each other of lying, and so on and so on.

That old saw about George Washington and his cherry tree has been eclipsed by the process of desensitization. The more lies you hear, the more acceptable lying becomes.

It seems that there's honor (as well as book and movie deals) in lying for liberty.

"I want you to know, lying does not come easy to me," North testified during the televised Iran-Contra hearings. Whew, that was a relief. But a patriot has to do what he has to do, and North went on to claim that by misleading Congress about the government's Iran connection, he was saving American lives. All right .

Are we now a society that lies or merely a society that tolerates lies, and really, what is the difference?

When it comes to TV lies, we seem to have no capacity for outrage at all. Viewers watched "The Secret of Al Capone's Vaults" in record numbers, waiting two hours to discover that the vaults were empty and the entire program was a sham. They were so angry that almost as many watched that latest safecracking--and quasi-con job--"The Raising of the Titanic."

The fact is, TV lies or misleads routinely:

--A press release from CBS News announces "distinguished" British TV journalist Selina Scott as a contributor on "West 57th. St." Scott is so distinguished that her last assignment on the BBC was as host of a fashion series.

--An ABC promo announces that "more people get their news from ABC News than from any other source." Let's see ABC prove that .

--An ABC press release announces "encore" daytime telecasts of a sitcom. "Encore"--meaning a demand by an audience for another appearance--is a network euphemism for rerun.

--Listen closely to the laughter you hear on live awards telecasts. The laughter is sometimes artificially "sweetened"--a TV euphemism for fakery--by a laugh machine.

--How many times have you heard a local news anchor bill a titillating story as coming immediately after the commercial break? But the story doesn't appear until near the end of the newscast--a dishonest trick to tie you to the program until the bitter end.

And so on and so on. You can supply your own examples.

There's lying on a much grander scale, though. And that's the theme of Bill Moyers' tightly focused PBS special tonight--"The Secret Government . . . The Constitution in Crisis."

In a 90-minute program (airing at 8 p.m. on Channel 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 24 and at 10 p.m. on Channel 15), Moyers contrasts the banality of government deceit and secrecy with the white-columned grandeur of the Capitol.

He makes the Iran-Contra scandal ("secrecy shrouded in lies") a launch pad for his thesis about America's shadowy backstage government. Then he lays out a scenario showing that the Iran-Contra revelations reflect a policy of secrecy threading perhaps all modern Presidents, in varying degrees.

The line is sometimes fine between secrets kept for the security of the nation and secrets kept for self-serving reasons. But Moyers doesn't hold back. The Iran-Contra players, for example, were "an interlocking network of official functionaries, spies, mercenaries, ex-generals, profiteers, opportunists and Cold War warriors who operate outside the legitimate institutions of government and increasingly beyond the Constitution."

"The Secret Government" makes no stab at being balanced. Moyers interviews very selectively, speaking only to those who tend to validate his thesis. No Ollie Norths here.

At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example, he finds two veterans who are outspokenly skeptical about U.S. involvement in the war. And there are talks on camera only with former CIA operatives who lament their past covert activities.

On the other hand, this is clearly labeled a personal essay, one man's view. So different rules apply.

Still, this is not the best of Moyers, who is clearly one of TV's elite journalists, a man whose record as a documentarian on CBS and PBS is unmatched. However, he does raise legal, ethical and moral questions about the conduct of government that are especially pertinent on this 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

The initial 15 minutes of his program are an Iran-Contra retrospective. After Reagan promises, "We will never make concessions to terrorists," we're off on a mission that shows that he did make concessions to a nation (Iran) closely identified with international terrorism.

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