Television: The Art of Cut and Paste

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The continuing cut and thrust over CBS's The Selling of the Pentagon last week got closer to the matter of "cut and paste" in Vice President Spiro Agnew's phrase. Representative F. Edward Hébert, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, filed an official complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, charging that the documentary's producers misleadingly edited film in order to disparage the Pentagon's publicity effort (TIME, April 5). Representative Harley Staggers not only complained to the FCC but also threatened to open an inquiry by his Special Subcommittee on Investigations. The Washington Post, though praising the import of the documentary, published two more lengthy editorials, again challenging the film's production techniques and accuracy. Not surprisingly, CBS News President Richard Salant saw the Government attack as a Washington witch hunt reminiscent of the prevailing atmosphere during the Ed Murrow-Joe McCarthy confrontation in 1954, and dramatically pictured himself as an "electronic John Peter Zenger."

Guardedness. Two segments from the one-hour program illustrate what everyone was arguing about. One showed the daily 11 a.m. press briefing at the Pentagon. During the session covered by the CBS cameras, the briefing official was asked, according to Pentagon count, 34 questions. He answered 31, begged off on one on grounds of security, and said he would have to "check back" before replying to the other two. In the excerpt CBS showed, the briefing had been edited down to just six of the exchanges, including all three evasions. Any viewer might reasonably have inferred that the Pentagon had been unresponsive to half of the reporters' questions. CBS says that the segment was not intended to show unwarranted evasion, only the Pentagon's guardedness.

Editorial tinkering of a more complex nature was involved in footage on the Peoria speech of one of the "traveling colonels" who push the Pentagon line in public appearances. What appeared on the program to be a verbatim, six-sentence passage from the talk was in fact a splicing of six separate declarations—out of sequence. The Pentagon claimed that the opening sentence came from page 55 of the colonel's prepared text, the second sentence from page 36, the third and fourth from 48, the fifth from 73, and the sixth from 88. In the rearrangement, Agnew contended, the opinions coming out of the colonel's mouth are actually quotations from Laotian Premier Souvanna Phouma.

CBS maintains, with some support from a tape of the speech, that the colonel's own words and Souvanna Phouma's were so confusingly interwoven as to be almost indistinguishable. In an irrelevant, pot-and-kettle argument, the network charges that the colonel himself used his source material (a magazine interview) deceptively by quoting the Premier when he supported the Pentagon-favored domino theory and failing to mention that Souvanna Phouma in the same article warned against spreading the war into Laos.

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