On PBS Tuesday night is the premiere of a three-part "Frontline" series: "News War" ("Frontline" is one of the most acclaimed news shows on U.S. TV). Two parts of the series have been co-produced by SAJAer Arun Rath. In 2005, Rath left public radio after some high-profile positions, including that of producer of NPR's On the Media and Studio 360. He worked out of WNYC's studios, and to this day I often mistakenly receive affection and compliments that were intended for him (but now he's gone, so I'm the Only Arun and he's the Other Arun, but that's neither here nor there).
From the clips I've seen, News War looks like a landmark series in the way it examines the relationship between the press and the state. The subjects include NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller, Pat Buchanan, William Safire, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, and fallen NYT reporter Judith Miller. It also delves into the commercial pressures facing the industry.
We asked Arun Rath a few questions about the series... See below. See previews of the show here and see the local listings for PBS stations across the U.S. here.
SAJAforum: How did you land up in this particular project?
Rath: I have to admit that nepotism was a factor, in a way — my wife [Raney Aronson-Rath] has been a producer for Frontline for years; we met about four years ago, when I was hired as a correspondent for a Frontine-World segment, and she was hired as the producer (she had done some documentary work in India, which is how we got thrown together for that project). Frontline asked her to produce half of this media series for her next project. I swear it was [Exec Producer] David Fanning’s idea, not my wife’s, to bring me on board for this project, because I’d produced On the Media, NPR’s media analysis show for several years.
Frontline devotes itself to issues of the utmost urgency. What brings journalism itself up to that level?
I don’t like to overstate things, but I think it’s safe to say journalism is in a crisis these days for a number of reasons. There are the economic factors— so many examples of layoffs, restructurings, etc. over the past several months, the most awful recent example to my mind being the closing of the Boston Globe’s foreign bureaus. But the economic issues are the subject of part 3, which our team didn’t produce. What you’ll see in the first two parts are the ways that journalists are at war with the government in a way we haven’t seen since the Nixon administration. Indeed, a number of reporters we spoke with talked about the end of what had been a 30-year truce between the press and law enforcement. There was a period from about 1973 to 2003 when reporters managed to stake out a privilege to protect their confidential sources and for the most part successfully resisted testifying — refusing, in essence to be an arm of law enforcement.
Today, all you need to do is turn on your TV and you can see in the Libby trial a parade of prominent journalists testifying in court. There are a number of other examples: Josh Wolf, an internet journalist recently set the record for jail time served for a journalist refusing a subpoena; Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the SF Chronicle are facing jail time for refusing to give up the source of the grand jury testimony that was behind their award-winning reporting on steroid abuse in pro baseball; and politicians are dusting off the Espionage Act and making noises about using it against journalists, which, even if it’s just for rhetorical purposes is a sign of how hostile the environment has become.... And that long ramble is really just a sample of what’s in our series, and believe it or not, there’s a lot of really compelling material we had to leave on the cutting room floor, even with 3 hours.
What does a Frontline producer do? And in what ways was this a complete leap from your work in radio?
My title on this project was Editorial Producer, which meant that I
tended to focus on content issues: figuring out how we were going to
structure these hours, who we’d interview and how the interview would
be structured, scriptwriting, etc. Even though we had a correspondent,
I also did a number of the interviews (Earl Caldwell, Ken Auletta, Tom Rosenstiel
feature most prominently in the final cut). By the end of the project
I was getting my hands dirty with television production, helping direct
the shots, backgrounds, etc. In a way, production is production, so
while there was definitely a learning curve, the transition wasn’t too
painful. It’s fun getting the extra media dimension television
provides. I’m still getting used to writing for TV; it’s still writing
for the ear, but keeping in mind the extra channel of information for
the viewer is an adjustment, and I’m still learning about how the
images work in telling the story. Probably stranger for me though was
going from working on a weekly, hour-long program to taking a year to
produce two intense documentary hours — but it also felt like a treat
getting to spend the time to really get deeply immersed in these
You've landed some very big names. How did you manage that? And who did you not get?
Much of the credit for that has to go to our correspondent, Lowell Bergman (the former 60 minutes producer immortalized by Al Pacino in ‘The Insider’). His relationships with sources, former colleagues, and friends got us access to a number of people that were essential to this project-- to name just a couple of examples, I can’t imagine we would have landed Judith Miller or Dave Szady (the former top counterspy for the FBI who ran leak investigations) were it not for Lowell. We tried without success for nearly a year to get someone from the administration to talk to us, but at the last minute we scored an interview with Dan Bartlett. That, and a number of other key interviews came about from simple persistence and effort over a long time by a number of producers.
We were originally going to feature a lot more about the rise of conservative media in this series, but it just wouldn’t fit in the end; plus we’d tried without success to get interviews with the big names at Fox News, and to talk about conservative media without such key players (Rush Limbaugh et al also turned us down) felt a little weak.
Of course we would’ve loved to talk to the President and Vice
President, and made the requests, but weren’t surprised that didn’t
Given the sensitive subject matter — national security and whatnot — did any of the interviews require special protocols, or need to be vetted afterward?
The interview with Judith Miller was seriously limited in scope due
to the fact that she was going to be testifying in the Libby trial.
One of the groundrules for our interview was that her attorney be
present to stop things if we got into any sensitive areas. Len Downie
of the Washington Post couldn’t talk about the meetings he had with
administration officials around Dana Priest’s stories about secret CIA
detention centers. Initially we had the same issue with Bill Keller,
who had a similar meeting at the White House about the New York Times’
NSA stories; but after his first interview, the administration
disclosed details of the meeting, freeing him to talk about it with us
(we had to set up a second interview).
Journalists hear a lot about the pressures on the industry these days - fragmentation of the audience, migration online, annoying shareholders. What do you hope they'll take away from this?
There’s some important history and context that it’s good for all journalists to know about— having spent a lot of time on the media beat, I was surprised about how much I had to learn about the history of reporting using confidential sources and the arguments around ‘reporter’s privilege.’ There’s also an interesting discussion about balancing national security concerns with the public’s right to know, featuring national security reporters like Dana Priest, Eric Lichtblau, and James Risen, and intelligence officials like former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin and an Assistant Director of the FBI (and former ABC reporter!) John Miller.
But I’m actually more concerned about what non-journalists will take away from this— the news media are less popular than ever with the public, but real reporting— boots on the ground across the globe and real, uncowed investigative reporting at home — is more important than ever. I’m hoping that average people will watch this and understand how important the press is, even when it doesn’t do a stellar job.
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