Frontline: an ‘essential’ mechanism for telling serious stories

By Steve Behrens

Frontline sometimes comes on like a multimedia prosecutor, revealing the evidence in pictures, voices and logic, and driving toward a conclusion.

It’s usually a very sobering conclusion, too, because the series has increasingly specialized in reminding us of our society’s worst failings — war, cheating and lying in high places, racism, crime and predation of all kinds.

On Nov. 5, [1991], Charles Stuart’s “Don King, Unauthorized” went after the boxing promoter — a man with two killings in his little-known past, who has collaborated with the media to paint himself as a harmless jokester with a funny haircut.

On Nov. 19, Martin Koughan’s “Losing the War with Japan” made the case that Japanese corporations are systematically driving out of business any competitors, including a few remaining Americans, that dare face them.

On Dec. 3, Carole Langer’s, “Who Killed Adam Mann?” gave us a close-up account of child abuse, picking up on the tragic history of a New York family that she had met and filmed while making a 1985 Frontline, and driving home the conclusion that one of the family’s sons would be alive today if city caseworkers had paid attention.

Since 1983, Frontline has put together 10 seasons of usually ambitious and often superb documentaries while the deep-pockets commercial networks have nearly abandoned investigative documentaries altogether.

Without the series, a generation of young TV viewers would have reason to give up hope for serious television journalism.

“One of the essentials”

“It’s one of the absolutely essential programs — it truly distinguishes us from anyone else,” says Tom Howe, station manager at KCTS, Seattle, a member station in the Frontline consortium.

“Unfortunately, it remains the only place in nearly the entire spectrum where contemporary issues of substance can get an airing,” says Robert Richter, a former CBS Reports producer who now makes documentaries independently.

Under a very broad definition, Frontline is educational TV. Not every one of its 180-plus programs have left the viewers saying “Wow!” at what they have learned, but many do.

Frontline and its executive producer, David Fanning, operate in the tradition of muckraking journalism, says Richter.

Muckraking requires lots of homework — enough to justify some conclusions of fact or at least probable fact. Frontline producers call this “a rekkie,” meaning reconnaissance. “If you find that one side or the other doesn’t hold up,” Richter asks rhetorically, “are you obligated to … make it look good if it doesn’t deserve to look good? Do you give Hitler equal time?

You don’t find many trappings of standard pro-and-con TV objectivity in the series’ more prosecutorial programs. As producer Koughan says, that method of synthesizing “fairness” generally involves “layering-on confusion.”

But not every Frontline report points emphatically to a conclusion. Back in May, Fanning deliberately let “Innocence Lost” run a full two hours, giving viewers the time to hear and weigh the words from both sides of a painful child-abuse trial in a small North Carolina town. Fanning wanted to allow time to the extensive interviews by Ofra Bikel “so the viewer can be drawn into this compex web.”

Dark of the Moon

Before Fanning took on Frontline in 1982, he had already produced one of public TV’s most controversial documentaries, “Death of a Princess,” which raised all hell in the Arab world in 1980.

Fanning and company have courted controversy again and again since then. Frontline did a “very nice and edgy” profile Yasir Arafat in 1990, according to a producer close to the series. “Before it even aired, there were people in the program-director ranks who were very worried about their funding base. … When you do programming about a controversial figure, generally nobody’s happy.” Fanning and his boss, Peter McGhee, WGBH’s v.p. for national programming, stood up for the program.

Predictably, Japanese companies weren’t happy with Koughan’s report on their trade practices. Honda, for example, has claimed it didn’t have a chance to reply to criticism, says Jim Bracciale, the series spokesman. Bracciale contends that Koughan tried three times to get the company’s response.

“It was an authored film, very clearly authored by Marty Koughan,” says Fanning. “It was in effect an analysis, a strong and necessary analysis.” But Frontline followed the film with a half-hour roundtable discussion “for people who would take issue with the general thesis,” Fanning explains.

What may be the next furor is already on the horizon. Coming up Jan. 21 [1992], Frontline looks at the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The series staff has already warned stations to be ready for flak from supporters of the evangelist/politician.

The week’s cover story

Frontline operates much more like a magazine than any ordinary TV newsroom. “There’s a sense inside the editorial process that we are pitching the cover story of a weekly periodical,” Fanning replies. Like a major magazine story, a Frontline report takes months to prepare, and aims to “define” an emerging issue for its audience, he says.

“The editorial process is very similar–an in-depth piece produced by an author, carefully researched, edited extremely carefully,” says Fanning. In editing “Who Killed Adam Mann?”, Fanning says, the producers “whittled down the story until it had the cleanest possible line.”

Jerry Landay, a former network news producer who teaches journalism at the University of Illinois, says he shows Frontline programs to his students. “It’s the best journalistic or reportorial documentary on the air.”

One of Landay’s favorites in the series, Alex Gibney and Robert Kuttner’s “The Battle for Eastern Airlines,” was the best journalism he had seen on Frank Lorenzo’s corporate-raider debacle. “At the time [of the events], I didn’t fully understand what Continental’s then-chairman was doing to the airline.” Frontline helped him understand.

Amazing footage

Landay also shows students “The Mind of Hussein,” which contains “truly amazing” footage of the Iraqi dictator purging his leadership before the camera. “As he stood there, members of the leadership were virtually picked out for execution,” Landay recalls. “He called on the survivors to go outside and shoot them.”

For a public that was then unfamiliar with Hussein, the documentary “dramatized the evil nature of this person–I consider this to be one of the most vivid pieces of stark horror I’ve ever seen.”

Frontline programs are often built around a powerful sequence like that. To get those images, producers sometimes use specialized video technology, including cameras that can “see” at night and hidden cameras. For “The Color of Your Skin,” a report on race and the military, Hector Galan used an 8mm video camera so small that subjects were not constantly reminded of its presence. “For 16 weeks, we were a fly on the wall,” Galan says.

Achieving timeliness

Since the beginning, Frontline has tried for timeliness. Increasingly, the series achieves it. “We have, over the years, gotten a little more practiced at getting wind of issues that will bubble up,” says Fanning. “When we sense the time to move, we have research in place.”

Frontline was already working on “The Arming of Iraq,” for example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. “The invasion had happened in August; in September, we had it on the air.”

“By December, there was still a question whether [the United States] would face Saddam Hussein down or not,” Fanning continues. “We took a calculated gamble that it was worth tracking the [Washington] decision-making.” In four weeks, Frontline readied “To the Brink of War,” produced by Michael Kirk and Michael Sullivan. “It ran on the night before the [American] decision to go to war.” A month later, Frontline came out with the Hussein profile that Landay likes so much.

Meanwhile, Frontline pitched in with other journalists at WGBH to produce half-hour specials anchored by Hodding Carter, the first four evenings of the ground war.

The series has moved toward initiative reporting on harder-news topics and away from contemplative approach. It is less a documentary anthology and more of a “serious journalistic entity,” Fanning says. “Each year we have people tell us, ‘this is the best year yet.'”

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