PBS Frontline: News War

  • This Week: “News War” (60 minutes),
    Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 9pm on PBS (check local listings)
  • Inside FRONTLINE: The press’s “perfect storm?”
  • Live Discussion: Chat with producer Raney Aronson-Rath, Wed., Feb. 14, at 11 am ET

More than a year ago, FRONTLINE began a special project on the news business. Our initial question sounded simple. We wanted to know: what’s happening to the news? It’s a question that concerns those of us who have spent a lifetime in journalism (like myself) and, more importantly, many of you who have written over the years about FRONTLINE’s reporting and the reporting of our colleagues in the national press, print and broadcast.

Beginning this Tuesday night, the answers to our question will unfold in four separate broadcasts over the next two months. For a listing, preview video and dates of all four programs, visit: http://www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar/preview/

Veteran correspondent Lowell Bergman, who has himself worked for The New York Times, ABC, CBS’ 60 Minutes, and FRONTLINE, investigates why he believes the news business has been hit by what he calls ‘a perfect storm.’ Bergman is also a professor at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The series was made in association with the school. Bergman, along with producers Raney Aronson-Rath, Arun Rath and Steve Talbot, will be telling stories crafted from over 80 interviews with key figures in the print, broadcast and electronic media - stories that provide an insider’s look at what’s happening at some of today’s key news organizations.

So, for example, you will hear from the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward on weapons of mass destruction reporting before the Iraq war, and Ted Koppel, former Nightline anchor, who has seen first hand the effects of changing media ownership on the quality of broadcast news. You will hear directly from the top editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the head of ABC News, on the business and reporting challenges that confront them. Prominent voices from the blogosphere and the CEO of Google will challenge the current paradigm with a vision of tomorrow’s news world. Can print reporters and their stories be reworked to carry good journalism to an online platform? Will ad revenues be enough to support them?

If you have been following the story of what’s happening to the news, then you already know that traditional newspapers are being buffeted as never before. The Boston Globe is closing its foreign bureaus; minority shareholders at the New York Times are asking about the value of their investment; the Los Angeles Times is for sale and having trouble finding a buyer. The news business is scrambling to find a new business model online.

But it’s not just the economics of the business that are changing. Some of the best reporters and their papers are being hammered from the right for being ‘biased’ and ‘liberal,’ while critics on the left see a press that failed spectacularly in its reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war. “The result,” says correspondent Bergman, “is to undermine in general our claim that we are a public interest or watchdog organization and should be trusted.”

Over the changing news landscape hangs the shadow of Iraq. Reporting in a time of war presents special challenges. The old saying still applies: truth is the first casualty of war. And in the case of Iraq, the failure of some of the nation’s top reporters and newspapers in the reporting on weapons of mass destruction would lead to the most controversial clash between the government and the press in a generation - the messy, tangled Valerie Plame affair.

So the first hour of our ‘News War’ series this Tuesday starts in a logical place: how the leak investigation into who outed Plame, then an undercover CIA officer, resulted in today’s headlines about the fate of the vice-president’s former chief of staff, ‘Scooter’ Libby. In the course of the trial, much has been revealed about the culture of reporting in Washington, the use of national security secrets for political purposes, the demands of sources for confidentiality, the willingness of reporters to grant it - all business as usual until a special prosecutor rewrote the rules for Washington, and some say, the national press. It has been observed that neither the reporters nor their sources are looking very good right now.

If you miss Tuesday’s broadcast, go online to our Web site whenever you want to view it (or view it again) and to explore the dozens of extended interviews published there, plus stories. And, express your opinion about this program at http://www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar/

I know, Huffington Post. You won’t often see me linking to stories there but this one was very interesting. It’s a lawyer deconstructing some of the discussion about “reporter’s priviledge” as it pertains to Fitzgerald and Miller in the Libby case.

You know things are bad when Patrick Fitzgerald gets smeared in a PBS documentary produced and reported by a journalism professor. Frontline’s “News War,” an otherwise excellent program reported by Lowell Bergman, Professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, made four false and misleading claims about the law and about Judith Miller’s case.

Together, they leave the impression that Patrick Fitzgerald abused his power while Judy Miller acted out of principle. The opposite is true.

Warning: very dry stuff for people who haven’t been following this closely.