PBS' 'Frontline' makes an admirable move toward transparency
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Was an interview edited unfairly? Here's the whole shebang
The frustration was palpable even on the live stream last night as John Dickerson of CBS News joined Washington Post stalwarts Karen Tumulty, Dan Balz and David Maraniss to discuss Donald Trump and troubling challenges for American journalism at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics.
It's not just Trump's premeditated attacks on the media but, as Balz put it, "a president whose adherence to the truth is unlike any we have seen in a modern presidency."
So it's all the more timely that the moment's turbulence brings this: an admirable gambit to deal partly with those who believe the press unfair, doubt its role and misunderstand the fundamental act of editing.
PBS' "Frontline" is turning the gripe of "biased editing" on its head as it discards a sacred tenet of most TV executives, namely not disclosing their "outtakes," or portions of interviews they don't use. That tradition can involve tons of reporting you rarely see. By coincidence, it serves as a response to a question that CBS' Dickerson, who served as moderator Tuesday evening, asked of journalist-historian Maraniss: Are there ways to better demonstrate the depth of our reporting and prove "we are not winging it?"
Well, there are. That's why "Frontline" will give consumers not just a story via a two-part documentary on Vladimir Putin, "Putin's Revenge," which begins tonight and looks at the evolution of his thinking about, and animus toward, the United States.
At 10 p.m., it will post online virtually every bit of all its interviews, or 70 hours of 56 interviews. They're with figures big and small, ranging from former big-time U.S. intelligence officials such as James Clapper and John Brennan to Putin confidantes, journalists, policy experts and others whom you don't know but have a lot to say on this important and ambiguous topic.
Both the video and transcripts will be easily searchable and annotated right here. Want to know what certain people said just about the topic of Russian hacking? Bingo. And insightful people who won't show in the actual documentary due to time constrictions? Well, all those interviews will be posted, too, with the only editing being as a result of normal and totally understandable legal considerations, like somebody going off the record (which didn't happen much) or spewing total b.s. of no factual basis.
Anybody who has ever been interviewed or been interviewed grouses about "what they left out" of a story. Reporters can grouse, too, about all that was left out, usually for space reasons.
There doesn't seem, at first blush, any apples-to-apples precedent for a TV (or print) project of such scope doing this. They are essentially going public with all their notes (with very small, legalistic exceptions). It's certainly a first for "Frontline" and Kirk Documentary Group, which did the Putin two-parter and has a distinguished history with the show. At minimum, it will be a treasure trove for academics and historians for years to come.
"Yes, there's been a disinclination to do this" in the TV news business, concedes Raney Aronson-Rath, the show's executive producer. I spoke with her and Phil Bennett, who assists the show on special projects, teaches journalism and public policy at Duke University and is former managing editor of The Washington Post.
Nothing is more precious to media operations, especially when it involves litigation, than notes and video not used for a story. They win the fight to keep them private most (but not all) of the time, essentially arguing that content not used is nobody's business.
This particular exhaustive project was motivated by Bennett walking into Aronson-Rath's office after seeing some of the Putin-related interviews. Why not run them all somehow? The vision of a video library for the series was born.
“What Frontline is doing is a perfect way to take advantage of the capacity of digital technology to make more material available to consumers of news," says Steve Brill, the journalist-media entrepreneur. "It makes Frontline accountable and demonstrates they have complete confidence in the integrity of their work.”
Brill did a fabulous 15-part series for Huffington Post, "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker," on Johnson & Johnson's creation and marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal (I offered my two cents on an early draft). He posted all documents he used, including deposition transcripts and email, precisely to help readers see if the story used them in proper context.
Could there be consequences — notably of a legal sort — for media who follow in such footsteps? Perhaps. Maybe there's a fear that courts could find an outlet's refusal to divulge certain reporting as undermined by disclosure of so much else. You can envision some media attorneys erring on the side of caution in counseling against disclosing so much content.
But there are far more reasons to do this, as Aronson-Rath underscored. And those include the free-floating mistrust of the press. Yes, it was the subtext of the University of Chicago panel. It helps explain the "Frontline" decision to proudly stand by its journalism and reason for being.
Another stunning fall from grace
Is there what The Atlantic calls a "Harvey Effect"? That may fall short of a formal clinical diagnosis but "The spell of sexual harassment accusation against powerful men in Hollywood and media intensified on Tuesday with allegations of 'workplace misconduct' against Leon Wieseltier," as the magazine put it.
As Politico reported, the former literary editor of The New Republic, contributor to The Atlantic and member of the social and literary A-list, was booted from the helm of a soon-to-be-unveiled magazine backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist and widow of Steve Jobs. Wieseltier, in the statement, acknowledged that he engaged in behavior with female colleagues that left them feeling "demeaned," and offered an apology.
And, as the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at The Brookings Institution told Politico, "The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning."
Make no mistake, you can make a good argument that for about a third of a century, Wieseltier has been the most prominent intellectual in Washington. Admittedly, it's a city with scant use for intellectuals. If you had a dollar for everybody on Capitol Hill who knew Wieseltier's name, you might not be able to afford the current 10 for $10 Tenders special at Popeyes.
At Oxford he studied under Isaiah Berlin, a fabled English-Russian philosopher-social theorist. As his Brookings bio notes, "Wieseltier has been the Godwin Lecturer at Harvard University, a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, the Gruss Professor in Talmudic Civil Law at Harvard Law School, and a distinguished professor of history at Johns Hopkins University."
His only rival as a public intellectual steeped in the literary realm was probably the late Vanity Fair stalwart Christopher Hitchens (who could out-debate you on virtually any subject, while also drinking you under the table in the wee hours, as I can attest).
And Wieseltier, like Hitchens, also ambled about more rarified and respectable circles in New York City. But, perhaps, no more. Come to think of it, there may be a "Harvey Effect." And Wieseltier would be better than anyone to assess the tragic elements of his fall.
A few months back, he spoke to a Syrian relief organization and told them that "for five excruciating years, you have borne the cruelties of contemporary history, all of them of human making."
Yes, self-inflicted wounds of many sorts can be the most damaging.
Recode informs, "One of tech’s most well-known investors, Steve Jurvetson, is being investigated by his venture capital firm in the latest sexual harassment allegation to land in Silicon Valley.
"Draper Fisher Jurvetson, the VC firm he founded, said Tuesday it had launched an inquiry into Jurvetson a day after an entrepreneur alleged that 'predatory behavior is rampant' at DFJ. The woman, Keri Kukral, did not name Jurvetson in her Facebook post."
Remembering David Broder
The University of Chicago panel last night was in honor of the late Washington Post political writer David Broder, a fair-minded journalism legend in the capital. The whole unavoidable matter of economics pressures changing the business came up in a smart two-part question from a spectator, premised on several obviously troubling realties in journalism.
It prompted David Maraniss, who finds much great work and young talent to laud these days and was a longtime Broder colleague, to concede, "It has to do with how you get the most hits, what gets the most play on television. Everything you (the questioner) said goes completely against what David Broder stood for."
And there was moderator John Dickerson's own assertion that citizens don't have "to watch the yelling" that goes for political discussion on cable news networks. "It's a little bit on us to say, 'I want to stop seeing those two people yelling at each other.'" Yes, he was on the mark. There are many other sources of news to check out.
A congressman caught counting the cash
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown is doing fine work in Puerto Rico — ah, remember the hurricane? — and in part has followed Chicago congressman Luis Gutierrez assisting the relief effort. At one point, the lack of lodging meant their sharing a hotel room, and this:
"One of the stranger moments in my travels with Gutierrez was when I looked up from my computer one night and saw him sitting on the hotel room floor counting his supply of cash."
"There were $20, $50 and $100 bills spread out on the couch, chair, coffee table and carpeting."
"I knew he had the cash. He told me when we checked into our room that he was putting $15,000 in the safe. Most of the money was to be distributed to a few local mayors, the rest to some individual victims."
I asked if it was safe to say that this was the first time he'd seen an elected official counting cash. Yes, yes, he said, it was.
Sparse on details
Poynter reports that "At a City University of New York event to discuss Facebook's efforts to fight misinformation, the company followed a familiar playbook of talking about its News Feed initiatives broadly, without offering great insight into their effect."
"Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s News Feed, visited the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a fireside chat on how the tech giant is working to improve its primary product. Moderated by CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis, the event — which filled an entire room with journalists from places such as USA Today and NBC News — was partially billed as a discussion on how Facebook is tackling its longstanding fake news problem."
A telling anecdote
You need know little more about the success, or lack of, of the giant U.S. investments in Iraq and Afghanistan than these paragraphs found deep inside a dispatch by The New York Times' Gardiner Harris as he traveled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:
"Earlier Monday, Mr. Tillerson made a secret two-hour visit to the main American air base in Afghanistan, arriving in a military transport plane to meet top Afghan officials inside a massive bunker. His visit to Iraq was similarly unannounced before he landed."
"That top American officials must use stealth to enter these countries after more than 15 years of war, thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent was testimony to the stubborn problems still confronting the United States in both places."
"Mr. Tillerson would not even risk the short trip to Kabul from Bagram Air Base to visit the heavily fortified United States Embassy or Afghan presidential palace, as his predecessors have done. The change reflects the increasingly uncertain security situation in Kabul and the fact that the United States’ presence is now surrounded by vast Taliban-controlled areas."
The morning Babel
"Trump & Friends" turned to the evil mainstream media, namely The Washington Post, and went big on the paper's exclusive, "The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund research that resulted in a now-famous dossier containing allegations about President Trump’s connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin, people familiar with the matter said."
The competition at CNN's "New Day" and MSNBC's "Morning Joe" opted to open with Republican rifts and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announcing that he won't seek re-election, while joining Sen. Bob Corker in high-profile derision of Trump. "A pretty good day for now for Trump," said David Gregory on CNN, meaning two critics might be supplanted by more sympathetic successors.
"It's a big win for the president," said Fox co-host Steve Doocy as he and colleagues trashed Flake as dead meat for re-election. Meanwhile. Joe Scarborough over at his show looked at it mostly in terms of a party at war, with its leaders cowed by a tweeting president whom he deems unfit for office. "It is bringing this party to its knees and will cause its destruction soon ... I've never seen such cowardice among leaders of the Republican Party."
Unease in Los Angeles
The very early stages of an attempt to unionize the Los Angeles newsroom are manifested with public disclosure of a 50-person organizing committee. They will formally request voluntary recognition from management as the collective bargaining agents for the newsroom. That's unlikely to happen, meaning a possibly grinding tussle in which the committee seeks enough signatures to trigger a formal representation election to be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
Health news you can use
Boston-based STAT this morning tips readers, "Look for some vaccine news today from Atlanta. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — experts who advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what vaccines Americans should receive — is meeting and a new shingles vaccine is on the agenda."
A nice get
Prowling the halls of Congress can sometimes be a reporter's gold mine but also a black hole. You can find some notable all alone (which means with only three sycophantic staffers nearby), chat him or her up and find a story. Or you can get zilch other than a few cliches.
So CNN's Manu Raju hit a brief jackpot when he found Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who's been rhetorically dueling with President Trump. Corker, who's been making the TV rounds as a hot commodity, proceeded to essentially call Trump a liar who "debases" the country.