Political Rhetoric, Reality Clash in PBS' 'Promises!'

Talk is cheap this election campaign. In the South Jamaica section of Queens, N.Y., so is life.

South Jamaica is one of those frayed pockets of society where political rhetoric clashes with reality, where the promises of George Bush and Michael Dukakis are like wind breezing through the trees, where people are shot dead in the streets in fewer seconds than it takes for a candidate to blast his opponent in a TV sound bite.

The PBS special "Promises! Promises!" (at 9 tonight on Channels 15 and 28) is specifically about the embattled citizens of this drug-ravaged, working-class community, but speaks also in behalf of other Americans for whom the political system is not working and for whom the presidential candidates have little relevance.

Guided by executive editor Bill Moyers and producer Elena Mannes, "Promises! Promises!" is an important, essential hour that keeps PBS' campaign coverage soaring above the TV pack.

The TV pack: Just when did the networks begin depicting the campaign as an extended comedy monologue? When did news reporting give way to news flash cards? When did meaningful issues become the fine print of meaningless coverage as diffuse as Bush's thousand points of light?

It's been a long campaign, pols and polls, pictures and Scriptures, cronies and phonies being routinely woven into the fabric of morning, noon and evening newscasts.

A moment of truth in the process came last week when Ted Koppel's significant 90-minute interview of Dukakis on ABC's "Nightline" passed with hardly a mention by the rest of TV.

Behind in the polls as Nov. 8 nears, Dukakis is now turning down few TV requests. But this was different, this was a chunk of coverage that seemed to expose the Democrat's flaws under only mildly aggressive questioning by Koppel.

Dukakis was vague. A question about Iran seemed to leave him briefly nonplussed. He seemed not to be aware of America's reliance on South Africa for precious minerals unobtainable elsewhere. Given an opportunity to rise above campaign rhetoric, he often fell back on it instead.

Granted, Dukakis was weary and facing TV's best hard-news interviewer at the end of a long, grueling day. But Presidents have long, grueling days.

Here, it seemed at last, was a candidate with his Plexiglas shield down. Yet it apparently mattered not to the TV wise men and wise women who live instead for sound bites, photo opportunities and polls, and who embrace and repeatedly dissect every trivial nuance of TV debates that, despite all the attention, are informational dead ends.

Are candidates not news unless they're facing or attacking other candidates? Is an interview news only when it's your interview? Will this be the way of the future as it is the present?

The inevitable post-event media self-evaluation and self-flagellation is already under way, as if media reform will take place in four years. It won't. By then, 1988 will be a blur, just as 1984 was when the candidates and media blitzed Iowa last January and February in again making the relatively unimportant Iowa caucuses the grossly over-covered starting point for the campaign.

The candidates were there because the media were there, and the media were there because the candidates were there, as Iowa became a snowy metaphor for coverage of the political season.

Of all the ways to cover a campaign, PBS has found the best in 1988: its combination of nightly "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" reports and regular Monday-night documentaries like "Promises! Promises!" going unrivaled.

This superb hour is far less about Bush and Dukakis as individuals than about the political and government process they represent. Contrasting with the vaporous TV stumping of the candidates in hermetically sealed settings, the dialogue here is blunt and honest, the background music a shrill symphony of police sirens.

"All I hear is rhetoric, and I don't see any programs coming out of Washington," a frustrated junior high school principal complains to Moyers in South Jamaica.

The camera explores faces in front of TV sets showing Bush and Dukakis on the stump. But to the residents of this drug-dealing mine field where one wrong step or one wrong word can end a life, the talk is hollow and "Just Say No" an empty slogan.

Drug busts have no lasting impact in South Jamaica, one set of dealers being temporarily put out of business only to be succeeded by another.

"I hear the candidates talking about the war on drugs," Moyers says.

"The war's not here," replies college student Gene Robbins, visiting home during a school break.

But scores of victims are. South Jamaica made headlines a few months ago when drug dealers executed a 22-year-old policeman as he guarded a family that had complained about crack peddlers on their corner.

One of the accused assassins is Todd Scott, 19, a childhood playmate of Robbins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholarship student. South Jamaica produces more youths like Scott than like Robbins, who characterizes the gap separating campaign rhetoric and his neighborhood as "an abyss, a chasm."

As the chasm widens, so does hopelessness. "Are you going to vote?" Moyers asks a woman. "Of course," she answers, then adds that her vote will make no difference.

Within South Jamaica there is an even tougher neighborhood known as the "graveyard," and it is here, in the absence of government programs, where a Muslim activist named Abdul works with youths, searching for those rare "jewels in the mud" who want a better life.

In a sense, many other Americans are doing what Abdul is doing as the election looms, searching the soggy campaign terrain for a jewel in the mud. Meanwhile, as George Bush vows to wage battle against drug dealers and Michael Dukakis promises a government Americans can be proud of, the good people of South Jamaica continue to live in fear and despair.

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