New PBS Doc Misses the Media/War Story

It's good news, bad news time again.

The good news is that PBS Frontline, one of America's leading documentary strands, is devoting an impressive four-and-a-half hours of national prime time (February 13, 20, 27 and March 27) to the overall subject of the "future of the news."

The bad news is that as the limited series contains very little that is either new or news.

Moreover, "News War" is more about the war than about the news -- at least judging from the first two hours, which were all that were available at press time.

As the author of a blog called "Media Is A Plural," and co-founder of a site called the "MediaChannel," I really wanted to recommend this series and commend Frontline for putting so many resources behind it.

But I'm afraid I simply can't -- this is programming that obviously sounded like a good idea in its conception, but in execution it's actually just another missed opportunity.

As usual, the programs are chockablock full of the famous Frontline "production values" and techniques: the subtly suggestive music; the dramatically-lit interviews; the sexy slow motion pushes into White House windows, purportedly offering a peek behind the veil; the near-total access to top players whose talking heads propel the action; and the appearance of rare in-depth treatment of important topics crucial to democracy…

That's the promise at least. Alas, the first two hours of the series (titled "Secrets, Sources and Spin") for the most part deliver only rehashes, bromides and clichés.

The opening program, for example, appears extremely topical, in that it considers the revelation of the secret CIA identity of Valerie Plame and the controversy over allegations that the Bush Administration twisted intelligence to lead the nation into war in Iraq. The events connected to that affair, of course, have been making headlines for several weeks during the course of the ongoing trial of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Having liveblogged a week of the Libby trial, however, I can assure viewers that they will learn more from reading blogs and other coverage of the trial than they will by devoting time to the Frontline effort.

To its credit, the program does from time to time meander into meaningful discussions of contemporary media and democracy issues -- but not nearly often enough. Instead, the producers make some curious choices: they rehash earlier media controversies such as the Supreme Court's Branzburg decision (in the first show) and the Pentagon Papers case (in show two.) They also cram in substantial sections about the Barry Bonds/Balco steroid story and even imprisoned video blogger Josh Wolf. They want the series to be about big issues like national security vs. the First Amendment and prior restraint vs. punishment after the fact.

But is this really "déjà vu all over again," as correspondent Lowell Bergman phrases it? I think not. America's news media in the 21st century are in a totally new situation, and instead of providing context, these historical and topical detours simply take the program off its tracks.

That said, "News War's" biggest flaw lies in its overall approach. The media here is all New York Times and Washington Post, MSM bigwigs like Bill Keller and Len Downie, Judy Miller and Bob Woodward, coupled with their counterparts in politics, like White House advisers Dan Bartlett and Mark McKinnon. There are few bloggers -- Jay Rosen gets two lines -- and no independent voices. (One conspicuous omission in the program's consideration of who in the media was "right" and "wrong" about Iraq's missing WMD, for example, is that of my Globalvision partner Danny Schechter, whose 2004 documentary "WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception" was way ahead of most media -- mainstream or not.) The program also covers right-wing demonstrations against the "Al Jazeera" Times, castigating the paper of record for reporting that the US government was secretly monitoring worldwide money transfers -- but it fails even to mention or show that the Times has more often been the target of progressive protesters upset about the paper's cheerleading for the Bush Administration and its policies promoting the war and occupation in Iraq. (Full disclosure: I led one organized by MediaChannel.) The fact that an entirely different narrative and critique of the real "news war" is missing from the Frontline effort means the producers missed the story -- or at the very least a good chunk of it.

Just as the mainstream media it focuses on blew the WMD story by relying exclusively on sources from Big Politics and Big Media, Frontline's "News War" misses the media and democracy story owing to this partial, flawed and incestuous approach, which comes off as mostly self-congratulatory. Moreover its information and analysis about the Valerie Plame affair is already outdated and surpassed by the ongoing Scooter Libby trial itself.

To sum up: judging from its first two hours, "News War" is a big disappointment… Here's hoping the final two and a half hours deliver more voices and more choices.

(Rory O'Connor directed, wrote and produced three films for Frontline in the early Nineties.)


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