CBS reaps an engrossing documentary from Soviet glasnost. Dan Rather, in an interview, puts the project in perspective
New York — Glasnost is the star of a startling CBS News documentary. Recently the network was granted unprecedented access inside the Soviet Union, and during the period May 20-26 ``Evening News'' anchor Dan Rather and eight other correspondents interviewed Soviet citizens from many walks of life in an opportunity to test Gorbachev's new official policy of encouraging a more open society.
The disquieting portrait of Soviet life that resulted is ``The Soviet Union - Seven Days in May,'' airing Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.
Though CBS News is planning to tinker with the two-hour documentary right up to air time, executive producer Lane Venardos agreed to show me some very rough pieces of the program last week. I found his office deep in the heart of the network's West 57th Street studios, several blocks from the chic CBS headquarters known as ``Black Rock'' on Avenue of the Americas.
We chatted about the special, as Mr. Venardos, a 20-year veteran of CBS News, inserted cassettes into the player one by one. He said he was very proud that his unit got to interview soldiers, artists, doctors, journalists, farmers, steelworkers, and even a member of the Politburo. The most amazing segments, perhaps, are the interviews with a black marketeer and a refusenik, and footage of a drug bust in Georgia, a criminal trial in Moscow, a rock concert in Vilnius, and life aboard a Soviet warship in Leningrad.
In a final commentary still subject to revision, Dan Rather said: ``It is still too soon to know whether glasnost [openness] and perestroika [Gorbachev's reform program] are merely tremors in Soviet society or something closer to an earthquake. ... We do not yet know whether this exciting time represents a danger or an opportunity for the West. ... For `Seven Days in May,' it was an important opportunity to observe this nation. When a superpower stirs, the world holds its breath.''
Based on the segments I saw, the documentary will offer a series of amazing once-over-lightly looks at Soviet citizens on just about every level of society. Many of the individual segments left me wanting more. I wished it had been possible to delve deeper, to dig in more detail. Many parts are startling in their apparent openness. Yet the sum of these parts has far greater impact than any one of them. The documentary's major strength is that it records a sweeping, breathtaking survey of a nation in flux, perhaps even in major transition.
As I finished viewing the clips with Venardos, a message arrived from Dan Rather: ``Please drop by and say hello.''
Tucked away beyond the vast CBS newsroom, Rather's office is comfortably furnished in a combination of French Provincial and Early American styles. In one corner, tropical fish inhabit a huge aquarium. In another, a humidifier spews a steady stream of mist. On a table lies a huge, antique, leather-bound Bible. On one of the straight-back chairs sits a needlepoint pillow, on which are embroidered the words ``Always is not Forever.''
Mr. Rather, in shirt-sleeves and new aviator-style glasses, had just returned from a fishing trip with his son. In all, he'd been absent almost a month from the ``Evening News,'' which had fallen to third place in the ratings for the past three weeks. In between putting his final touches on the documentary, he was thinking about ways to improve the newscasts - using more of the network's well-known correspondents like Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer and finding a commentator to replace Bill Moyers. He has also been working on specials on Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans, which will air in late summer and early fall on ``CBS Reports.''
Why did the USSR allow CBS to film some of the most revealing segments?
``I don't know,'' said Rather. ``I never believed we would get anywhere near the kind of access we've had. I never believed they would allow us to film aboard a Soviet warship. Or a drug bust, when only recently they wouldn't even acknowledge there was any drug problem there. Were we being used? Yes. They obviously believe this access will work to their advantage. But whatever their motives, I learned more about the Soviet Union than I've ever known before, and I've been there about a dozen times over the years.''
When asked if he felt glasnost is an honest change of policy or just another political maneuver, Rather said, ``There's no doubt there's something new and important going on. The question is how deep it goes and how long it lasts. I don't think the Soviet leadership itself knows that now.
``It would be a mistake to think of glasnost as something necessarily beneficial to the West. Gorbachev is a communist, but he's smart enough to see that the economies of Western Europe, Japan, and the US are leaving the Soviet Union behind. He realizes that, unless he can effect some sort of deep reform in the Soviet economy, they are going to fall further behind.
``I'm convinced it's a long-range strategy of Gorbachev's to get reform in the Soviet economy, but he's in a struggle internally with people who prefer the status quo. To reform the Soviet economy, he's got to get his own people and his own influence deep into such institutions as the Soviet military, and glasnost is clearly part of his effort to win popular support so he can do so.''
What does Rather hope this documentary can accomplish?
``If we can touch off just a few new sunbursts of thought about the Soviet Union in the individual US mind,'' he said. ``If we crack some of the stereotypes, then we will have succeeded. We can help the spirit of openness and candor in the Soviet Union by continuing to ask questions. We should not underestimate the power of continuing to ask questions.
``Having said all that I don't want anybody to come to this broadcast believing that we have any illusions about the Soviet Union or what we were able to accomplish. The USSR is led by dedicated Marxist-Leninists who do not wish us well. They are looking for advantage - everything from publicity and propaganda advantage to military and economic advantage. We went there with our eyes open, and I hope people will view this broadcast with all that in mind.
``In ten years we could look back and say [this broadcast] was just ... a carefully orchestrated attempt to manipulate Western thought for a brief period of time. But it might also be that we will look back and say it was the start of a whole new burst of reform in the Soviet Union.''
Asked how he feels about the fall in the ratings for the ``Evening News,'' Rather responded with a shrug. ``The longer I go, the less I know. The ratings are a great mystery. I don't understand them. I can't find anyone who does. ... I don't get concerned about them. They are a false god. We have to put on the best broadcast we can put on. Naturally I hope the ratings will be good. But if we put on a good broadcast, whatever the ratings are, I walk away feeling OK.
``Where the whole network stands in the ratings makes a difference in its news ratings. Time of year makes a difference. Pre-emptions make a difference. I like to do documentaries. I like to be in the field. I can't be everywhere all the time.
``I made choices to pull myself into the documentaries I really care about; so I haven't been on the show for several weeks.''
Asked whether the ``Evening News'' will be back on top in the ratings next season, Rather said, ``I have no idea about tomorrow or next week or next season. But I earnestly believe we have the best broadcast now.''
There are rumors that CBS News is considering Diane Sawyer as co-anchor to boost the ratings, but when asked whether he is under any pressure to approve a co-anchor, he was quiet for a moment. Then he looked around the room, and over at the embroidered pillow with the words ``Always is not Forever.''
``No.'' he said firmly. ``But if that changes, I'll let you know. It's not a subject I'm tender about.''
In an unusual move that will benefit news-oriented television viewers, NBC News has rescheduled its special ``Six Days Plus 20 Years: A Dream Is Dying,'' originally slotted to air opposite CBS's ``Soviet Union: Seven Days in May.''
The NBC program now will air Wed., July 1, 10-11 p.m. With Tom Brokaw as anchor, it will report on the dangers ahead for Israel, 20 years after the Six-Day War.