Frontline: News War



9-10 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20 and March 27; 9-10:30 p.m. Feb. 27
KCET (Los Angeles)

In unusually clear language, "Frontline" shows how the Bush administration misled the public in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. It also explains the convoluted controversy over leaks that led to the public identification of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Yet "News War," this four-part, must-see "Frontline" special, isn't really about either of those topics as much as it is about the news media facing a government that is openly hostile to the newsgathering and reporting process.

Does the news media have a role to play in the checks and balance of the government? Is it, as Thomas Jefferson declared, indispensable to a self-governing republic? Or is it, as the current administration seems to think, just another competing interest group with its own agenda?

At the same time, the premiere episode also raises provocative questions over the whole notion of anonymous sources. Last year, New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail rather than divulge her source, but really, was this a source worth protecting?

Media critic Tom Rosenstiel points out that anonymous sources used to be reluctant whistle-blowers who had to be coaxed into coming forward. Now, they're often high-level officials who cloak themselves in secrecy to plant stories that serve their own purposes. Should journalistic promises of confidentiality apply as much to one as the other?

The first two parts lay out the conflict between the role of the news media (mostly the New York Times and the Washington Post), which provides vital information to the public, and the government, which believes that some of that information interferes with its ability to protect the nation. The last part of the second episode discusses the plight of the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who face jail time for refusing to divulge their source for grand jury testimony that implicated Barry Bonds and others in illegal use of steroids.

Although producers Raney Aronson and Arun Rath go to great lengths to be certain that all sides are represented, it's hard not to come away thinking that the Bush administration, and especially the Department of Justice, could profit from a rereading of the Constitution.

The third and fourth parts, unavailable for preview at deadline, deal with the changing business of journalism, particularly as generations of traditional news viewers are replaced by those who either care less about news or prefer to get it from different sources. The third episode, on Feb. 27, includes a look at what the "Frontline" press release calls "the embattled newsroom of the Los Angeles Times, one of the few U.S. newspapers still covering major national stories."

The last episode takes a look at global journalism.

Correspondent Lowell Bergman is at his best throughout the special, getting to the heart of the matter. Kudos once more to "Frontline" for raising important questions as well as providing information to help answer them. The next time someone asks why we need PBS when there are so many other channels, keep this special in mind.

Frontline in association with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and A Little Rain Prods.
Producers: Raney Aronson, Arun Rath
Co-producer: Seth Bomse
Director: Raney Aronson
Writers: Raney Aronson, Seth Bomse, Lowell Bergman
Correspondent: Lowell Bergman