Can we believe the documentaries we see on TV?
The believability of all TV documentaries is being aggressively questioned because of a recent TV Guide article. It charges that a recent CBS News documentary titled ''The Uncounted Enemy--A Vietnam Deception,'' about Gen. William C. Westmoreland and the alleged underreporting of Viet Cong strength, revealed ''journalistic lapses'' and ''distortions.'' Such accusations are enough to make any TV viewer--or critic--wary of TV advocacy journalism.
Now, ''ABC News Closeup''--in the past an admirably reliable if sometimes controversial documentary operation--has come up with a provocative, even shocking, piece of electronic journalism: J. Edgar Hoover (ABC, Thursday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings).
The ABC probe claims to have uncovered new information suggesting that US intelligence had intercepted Soviet KGB messages indicating that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty. The information, however, could not be used in the famous trial because the United States did not want to indicate to the Russians that the US had broken their code.
The documentary also alleges that Hoover withheld information that Lee Harvey Oswald had talked to Fidel Castro in Cuba and had offered to kill President Kennedy shortly before the assassination, and that Hoover covered up many similar FBI practices and generally promoted the FBI, sometimes to the detriment of long-range US policy. (One alleged example: the case of eight captured Nazi saboteurs during World War II whose detention he announced prematurely.) And there is much more.
''ABC News Closeup: J. Edgar Hoover,'' produced and directed by Tom Bywaters, written by Bywaters, Marshall Frady, and Patricia K. Lynch, narrated by Frady, all under the aegis of the conservative senior producer Richard Richer and executive producer Pamela Hill, is a disturbing document. It's not so much because it uncovers Hoover's alleged malfeasance but, in most cases, because it says aloud what has been whispered for so long.
In addition to the Rosenberg, Oswald, and saboteur cases, the documentary investigates other alleged actions by Hoover, such as his seeming vendetta against Martin Luther King and his alleged infamous files on congressmen and presidents.
Much of the investigative work seems to have been done by Patricia Lynch, who managed to get some of the accusers on camera. In most cases, however, there is necessarily very little air time to investigate the background of the accusers. The lack of time, in TV documentaries, forces the viewer to rely almost completely on the dependability of the documentarian. ''Hoover'' should have been allotted much more time--at least 90 minutes, or perhaps two hours--for the case to be made more completely for TV viewers.
The conclusion reached by Mr. Frady--''In our democracy, those we must watch most closely are those we entrust to watch over us''--is a valid one, whether or not all of the accusations are provable. But in the light of the questioning now going on about the easy opportunity for distortion in TV documentaries, one cannot help but wonder if the premise for the show preordained its conclusion.
In any event, ''J. Edgar Hoover'' is a fascinating piece of advocacy journalism, filled with partly proved accusations and rumors mixed in with seemingly authenticated ones. If its assertions actually prove undeniable, it will long be remembered for daring to tread where so many others have hesitated.