Sunday, December 02, 2007

TV: Fumble Line


PBS' Frontline, like Mother Superior, frequently jumps the gun. We'd like to say we're referring to a desire to rush timely reports on air; however, we're referring to their tendency to rush towards self-congratulation. Currently they are trumpeting the fact that they've been airing for 'over 25 years' and we'd be happy to offer a non-sincere "Congratulations" were it not for the fact that the program began airing January 1983. Now we may not be math genius but we can add 25 to 1983. We bet you can as well and that you also come to the figure of 2008. In other words, they're like a twenty-year-old desperate to order that first legal drink -- a desperation unbecoming in a young adult and certainly unbecoming in a news program.

They don't, however, consider themselves a news program. They bill themselves as a "public affiars" program which will come as a shock to many journalists who regularly write of it as a news program. Billing itself as a news program would not allow them to use the adjective "longest running" as a preface since The NewsHour beats it out. So they abdicate their genre to grab onto a title. It's perfectly in keeping with the Frontline legacy, one you won't find told in the laughable "about us" section of their website.

Jessica Savitch is a name many may not know today. (Chet Collier and Frank Magid are among the names Docker Boy David Carr fumbled past last week in The New York Times when trying to explain a shift in news which Savitch's era represented.) Up Close and Personal started out as a film about her life; however, drugs, death, sex and more isn't "Disney" enough, even if you could attach a mermaid's tale to it, so what made it to screen was yet another version of A Star Is Born. But once upon a time, Jessica Savitch was a big name in news circles. It was thought she might become the first women to land the (solo) anchor role on the weekday evening news. (Savitch did anchor NBC's weekend news.) She was a news star at NBC. Both Bill Moyers and Charles Kuralt turned down the offer to host Frontline. Jessica Savitch said yes. Though she mainly provided narration, the program and PBS were more than happy to ride her famous name so it's a little disgusting how quick they are to disown her today.

Maybe it's not the reports of her drug use but that she's considered too 'fluffy' for their tastes? We're talking about a program that debuted with a look at the NFL and organized crime. A shade or two of difference and it could have been a Geraldo special. Instead with Savitch's name, her skill and her interview with Pete Rozelle, over eight million viewers tuned in for the show's debut. It's equally true that the show was happy to use Savitch when it was time to raise money -- even after the program began airing. An argument could be made that it wouldn't be around today were it not for signing Savitch (and whether or not that would be a god thing is also open to debate), so it's a little pathetic to watch them distance themselves so from the name that made them.

Almost as pathetic as alleged journalists with the program telling -- after Savitch died -- tidbits that supposedly embarrassed Savitch (who was as temperamental as Dan Rather and assorted others are) but really just demonstrated how pathetic the people she had to work with were. One only demonstrated how stupid she herself was when she began dining out on tales of how Jessica Savitch -- in the pre-cell phone days -- demanded to leave a location (during a taping break) to go to a pay phone in order to make a call. Savitch's contract with NBC was being re-negotiated and she feared NBC had brought in Connie Chung as a replacement. When the call was made, she would learn Chung was replacing her as weekend anchor. Wanting to make the call was not a sign of 'diva' behavior or a sign of paranoia. It was what any anchor would have been doing during a break. As shocking and pathetic as repeating that supposedly 'illuminating' story (after Savitch died) was, the men working on the show were no better as they offered comparisons (after Savitch died) to Marilyn Monroe and Alex in Fatal Attraction (Glenn Close's psycho character). They kissed her ass while she was alive because they needed her. The minute she died, they preyed on her like vultures.

Jessica Savitch did cocaine. Sorry to shock anyone but she's not the only news personality (or anchor) to do it. Her image has been repeatedly trashed and sullied by those who needed her to get their program on the air. The fact that Moyers and Kuralt turned them down should have clued everyone involved with the program that they didn't have the jewel they thought they did and they should have considered themselves damn lucky to have landed a name like Jessica Savitch.

The lack of appreciation goes a long way towards explaining Frontline which veers from rare insights to That's Incredible! from week to week. A program that devalues what put them on the map also disrespects their audience.

Which is how you get the con game they pulled on viewers in 2004, after the party conventions, when they decided to offer a two-hour broadcast about that year's presidential election. It was entitled "The Choice" but viewers even only semi-awake should have grasped that the choosing had been made before the program ever aired.

Did it lean to Bully Boy? PBS always tilts right. But we're not even talking about that. We are talking about the fact that public television -- created with a mandate for diversity -- told viewers they had two choices: Bully Boy or John Kerry. Who knew public television had signed the "Ralph, Don't Run!" petition? Frontline certainly acted as if it had.

It acts like a number of things while billing itself as a "thought provoking journalism." Wait, it just called itself a public affairs program! Twenty-four years later (not twenty-five) and it still can't figure out what it is. Conveying that confusion seemed to be the entire point of last week's episode.

"Spying on the Home Front" featured an attempt at open 'cute' programming. Viewers were treated to a wedding in Las Vegas and, look, there's an Elvis impersonator. Home movies turned Americans into voyeurs when they should have been appalled that everyone in Vegas was being watched (forget New Year's Eve, those cameras run constantly). Having wasted a valuable amount of time, it was then off to the land of catch-up: How we got here?

As the episode continued, you might have found yourself longing for the couple's return since you were now smack dab in PBS-country, national capital: Official Land!

Did you learn anything? Well, it's good to know torture boy John Yoo is packing on the pounds and his bags under the eyes film worse than Oprah's. But anything of real value? It may have been established that NSA letters and not court orders were used in some cases of spying on Americans (specifically, eavesdropping on their electronic communications) -- then again, it may not have been established. The viewers were left to draw their own conclusions.

And maybe some did. Maybe some people who have managed to make it through the last years without ever hearing of the Bully Boy's illegal, warrantless spying, actually learned something? If so, good for them. We have no idea why that crowd would be watching Frontline -- maybe the remote busted? -- in the first place but anything's possible.

For those who've been paying even a tiny amount of attention, they were most likely frustrated as the program offered, at best, bullet points and nothing in depth. Had Robert Parry (Consortium News) been on, for example, he could have addressed the way Bully Boy's actions fit into the larger push for 'unitary executive power.' He could have provided the context that John Yoo (who had a serious problem looking at the camera -- a common trait among those who lie on camera) was fumbling around. Parry could have explained it and could have critiqued it. Instead viewers were left with Yoo trying to make like the last one standing at the fort as 'marauders' rode in. A Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) or Marjorie Cohn (National Lawyers Guild) could have explained the legal basics involved and really gotten to the heart of the Constitutional objections -- instead, the talking head officials they went with provided about the same level of enlightenment as the ghastly Liberty Kids. Without Parry, Ratner or Cohn -- or anyone else qualified to speak on the subject -- it was all a series of similar events whose relationship to one another, if any, could be boiled down as "Say what?"

In her new book The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf explains how spying works in a country, in a closing society. It's used to track (which Frontline managed to grasp) and it's used to silence (which they really didn't). Whether it was the couple who married in Vegas or any 'official' paraded, illegal spying on American citizens was presented as basically something annoying, like living next door to Bewitched's Gladys Kravitz.

That's not really the point of spying. The point is to silence, to intimidate. When it's known that a government is spying on its citizens -- any government -- that doesn't just 'irritate' or 'tick off' citizens, it silences them. They begin restricting their activities based on what they know about the targets of surveillance and what they fear. So when an attorney like Brandon Mayfield is targeted, the fact that he's committed no crime (he committed no crime) doesn't really matter. What matters is that he spoke out against the government and the government, publicly, made it clear that those who challenge the official line coming out of the White House will be spied upon, will be targeted. That is the point of spying, that is the point of torture. It reaches far beyond the people who are actually spied upon or tortured to create a fear running through an entire society that anyone and everyone could be next so no one better question, no one better buck the system, fall in line quickly. It sends a message.

It's a message Frontline viewers never received because none of the 'officials' on the program seemed well versed in the topic. Any news or public affairs program exploring the topic of spying needs to address fully the effects it repeatedly has on any society that allows its government to spy on the citizens. Not to do so is a failure. Frontline failed for an hour.

After a viewer digests sixty minutes of PBS on one topic, they should never have to wonder "Say what?" When a PBS program can't get across the basics and their relationship to one another in an hour something is seriously wrong. But, hey, you got to see an Elvis impersonator sing, right? That should count for . . . nothing.

We had a made a point to ask friends at PBS which episode to watch and this is the one they advised us was the best. We'll assume that is the case and they weren't trying to trick us by unloading a 1978 Ford Pinto. That said, we felt like we were test driving a Hyundai and cursing the salesperson who swore to us it handled just like a Honda.

If Frontline can utilize (waste) an hour by only hinting around at some of the realities, what really is the point of the show?


Note: We named the people trashing Savitch in the print version. Part of the long delay in this week's online edition (only part) resulted from a PBS friend calling this morning to ask what we were saying about Frontline? We outlined the key points and were told, "You can't mention her by name!" We don't see why we can't name a woman who's trashed Jessica Savitch. We're told those statements may have been made over the years publicly (they have been, repeatedly) but they were never made to the press "or at least not on the record." After a heated exchange, we agreed to pull the woman in question's name (and, since she wasn't being named, we made the decision to pull the names of the men). That was because we don't have the time to hunt down printed versions of the statements but we believe they do exist. If this really pisses us off after we've had some sleep (it does now), we may go looking for those statements in published accounts and, if we do, we will note the three people by name either in a note added to this commentary or in next week's commentary.
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