In the midst of the controversy still swirling about allegations of distortion in the recent CBS-General Westmoreland documentary, still another television documentary controversy has erupted. There are allegations by Mobil Oil Corporation of distortion by ABC, and a subsequent report of ABC ''backing off'' in the New York Times. This evoked an ABC accusation of ''unfairness and inaccuracy'' on the part of the New York Times in its reporting of the ABC response.
Herbert Schmertz, a vice-president of Mobil, complained to ABC vice-president George Watson, who functions as that network's ''news monitor,'' about what he termed ''a carefully constructed series of false accusations and innuendoes designed to create an aura of guilt and immorality'' in the June ABC Closeup: ''The Oil Game.'' He said he especially objected to what he termed implication by innuendo; specifically, that Mobil was involved in what Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee called ''the largest fraud . . . that has ever been committed on the American public.''
According to a story in the July 22 New York Times (written by Sally Bedell, the same reporter who co-wrote the TV Guide story that attacked what it termed the CBS ''smear'' of General Westmoreland), ABC ''backed down.'' The story quoted Schmertz: ''We are delighted now to learn that we were not part of any fraud . . . at least there is acknowledgment of inaccuracies and that conclusions the public came away with were not correct. . . . I think ABC should go the last step of acknowledging that on the air.''
Watson, in a letter dated July 22 addressed to the editor of the New York Times, responded: ''The Times itself managed to report inaccurately and unfairly on both what the documentary said about Mobil and what ABC News replied to the company's charges.''
According to vice-president Watson, ABC News has not, as the Times printed, ''backed down on some aspects of its portrayal of Mobil.'' Rather ''our response to Mobil concluded that ABC News was fair and forthright in its dealings with Mobil and that the documentary reported accurately and fairly on the issues it dealt with. We stated that Mobil's charges are without merit and that, therefore , no corrective action is in order.''
Then Watson goes on to attack the bearer of the message, the ''good gray New York Times. ABC consistently followed its own policies and the practices of good journalism in producing the documentary. If the New York Times had done so in its reporting, it would have interviewed the executive of ABC News (Watson) who wrote the letter, instead of only the Mobil executive who read it.''
According to William Honan, cultural news editor of the Times: ''I think ABC is trying to have it both ways. Right at the top of our story we quoted ABC as saying they were not backing down. But then they admitted mistakes.''
So, the ethical soul-searching goes on. . . . But at this point it seems to be evolving into internecine journalistic warfare.