Unearthing 'the Hidden History'
By Michael Getler
October 22, 2009
Most of the e-mails to the ombudsman this week came in reaction to last week's column dealing with Frontline's Oct. 13 documentary about Afghanistan with the controversial title, "Obama's War," and with the controversial use of footage of a fatally wounded Marine. That mail is posted a bit farther down in this column.
Also this week, I began receiving some early comments about the next Frontline program that aired on Oct. 20. It was called "The Warning." It was about the smart, courageous but unheeded former chief of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, who warned, in the late 1990s, of a coming economic disaster because of the hidden and unregulated markets in derivatives and other not well understood securities.
This was, in my view, an excellent and powerfully presented program, shedding light on a rare and what turned out to be extremely high-stakes confrontation at the highest levels of government during the Clinton administration in which the woman who lost, Ms. Born, might have helped avert our recent financial calamity had the outcome been different.
One Troubling Aspect
But there was one slightly troubling thing about this, less about the broadcast itself than about its promotion and description by Frontline. In introducing this film online, Frontline says this: "In The Warning, veteran FRONTLINE producer Michael Kirk unearths the hidden history of the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. At the center of it all he finds Brooksley Born, who speaks for the first time on television about her failed campaign to regulate the secretive, multitrillion-dollar derivatives market whose crash helped trigger the financial collapse in the fall of 2008."
It's the "unearths the hidden history" part that I take some exception to, and that's because anyone who reads The Washington Post may well remember a major, triple-bylined, 4,400-word front-page story exactly one year ago, on Oct. 15, 2008, headlined "What Went Wrong."
Here's the way it began: "A decade ago, long before the financial calamity now sweeping the world, the federal government's economic brain trust heard a clarion warning and declared in unison: You're wrong.
"The meeting of the President's Working Group on Financial Markets on an April day in 1998 brought together Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. — all Wall Street legends, all opponents to varying degrees of tighter regulation of the financial system that had earned them wealth and power.
"Their adversary, although also a member of the Working Group, did not belong to their club. Brooksley E. Born, the 57-year-old head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, had earned a reputation as a steely, formidable litigator at a high-powered Washington law firm. She had grown used to being the only woman in a room full of men. She didn't like to be pushed around."
When I asked Frontline producers how come the Post story didn't get some mention or reference in "The Warning," they pointed out that there were links to it in the Analysis and Readings sections of the Web site. That's true, and it's also true, I would add, that Born had declined to talk to the Post last year but was interviewed in-person on the Frontline program. Nevertheless, I don't think Frontline, as good as this program was, "unearthed" the hidden history of this crisis nor Born's role at the center of it. I think the Post, and maybe others that I'm not aware of, was way ahead and deserved some reference somewhere in the script.
Now, back to the letters about last week's column on the controversial footage in "Obama's War" and some early letters about "The Warning."
About the Footage on the Fatally Wounded Marine
Thank you for your input on this topic. I started reading with very mixed feelings and no strong opinion in favor, but leaning a little to "poor taste." I didn't watch the program because I read a lot and am "war weary" at this point (health care weary as well). Your column succinctly makes the case for public informedness with appropriate guidelines. I might still favor letting the family have the final say if the person in question has been publicly identified as being the person in program-specific footage.
This reminds me of something similar. I read of the dead soldiers and feel sad, I see their pictures at the end of NewsHour, when they are shown, and tears well up. The impact is much greater with the image. Impact matters if those of us who aren't personally involved are going to understand the consequences for those who ARE involved.
Janet Camp, Milwaukee, WI
Thank you for the article on the Frontline presentation of Obama's War. I've lived through WW II and all the wars since, so I did not choose to watch it. In principal, though, I totally agree with you that reporters should show us the horrors of war. It is not pretty, it is not as clean as it sometimes appears today and people need to know that death in war is horrible. Sometimes it becomes necessary, but we would be far better served to avoid commitment to wars that are not required to defend the safety of our country. As to the title, how could anyone dispute the obvious fact that it has become Obama's war to oversee?
Olive Lohrengel, Buda, TX
I agree wholeheartedly with your judgment on this. I also agree that our recent wars have been much too sanitized. War reporting must include the deaths on both sides, it seems to me, or the public is not being fully informed or properly served. The Marine's father says it well.
Bruce Nelan, Rockville, MD
Here, Here to everything you wrote. If anything I would strengthen it. This is war. It is awful. It is horrible and brutal. It is the truth and it is reality. Not to show it is a lie. I'm so sick and tired of this war pornography that makes war look like a video game. And what about the victims, the tens of thousands of people we murder and maim? It's gotten so bad you will see more violence watching NFL football on Sundays.
Tom Felt, Tucson, AZ
Explicit images of a soldier dying have absolutely nothing to do with mislabeling a war. One is a lapse in common decency, and the other is a lapse in intellectual honesty. What's the point of being an ombudsman if you're just going to defend this kind of junk? Frontline has hit plenty of home runs over the years, but it has also struck out in pretty spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, the show fails to grow. I suspect that's because all the pieces are farmed out, and in fact, Frontline is actually just a front for several independent production companies. I doubt you'll be writing about that.
Dave Parks, Birmingham, AL
And on the Title and Other Aspects
I couldn't disagree with you more about calling this episode OBAMA'S WAR. It makes it seem like PBS has just been taken over by Fox. Certainly it gives the impression that it's President Obama who's guilty of creating this nightmare and then making it worse by ineptitude that further botched it up. The program should have been called something like, "BUSH'S WAR, OBAMA'S HEADACHE." You may think that by trying to undo the damage, President Obama is "owning" this war, but he's just trying to clean up the mess that should have been his predecessor's responsibility. I could hardly believe that PBS would use such an inappropriate title. NOW where do we turn for "fair and balanced" reporting?
Holly Helmstetter, Antwerp, NY
Re: President Obama's War: The title of this piece is poorly chosen. It implies that he started the war. As he has only been in office for 10 months of the over 8 years and he has not announced his new strategy or goals, it is misleading. I will definitely watch it. But what about the people who do not and those who do not have the journalistic ethics that PBS has had that will be more than happy to use the title to blur history and the mismanagement of the start of this war and the back burner that it has been put on so we could invade Iraq?
Donna K., Berkley, MI
It appears to never fail that when a new President takes office all of the blame for the previous administration gets imposed on him. Obama did not start this war. Cheney and Bush and his minions have dropped the ball and put this country in such a deep hole, it is more like a chasm. It will take more then one term to try and undo or remedy the disastrous condition Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and that good ole boy network left this country.
Ginger Ferrer, Manchester, NH
FrontLine always reminds me of what journalism should be and how much is missing from the media networks. I had the privilege of watching two great shows, Obama's War and The Warning, in just a few short days. If only Frontline were H1N1 it might infect the other media outlets with their virus of intelligent investigating and reporting. Will it ever happen, or is Fox the rabid carrier of our day.
Michael Sheridan, San Diego, CA
I was watching PBS last night, the program about the current situation with Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was greatly disturbed that the f-word was left in, clear as a bell, THREE times in less than thirty seconds. I reported it to the FCC (because I doubt PBS's elitist leftist program managers would care to do anything about it otherwise). Normally, I allow my children to watch SOME of PBS's programming, but it's falling on my popularity list. I can tolerate some of the socialist indoctrination, but I will not tolerate profanity of that magnitude.
Daniel Hennis, Kuna, ID
First, Frontline is my most favorite program on all of television. I'm not sure of your political party interests, nor do I particularly care. But I'm sure you know that way back when the severe left wing liberals at one time controlled PBS. As of lately, the last 10 years or so, programming on PBS changed, very much for the better. Before the last decade all that was on PBS was music shows and other "crap" that nobody could care less for, except for the deep hearted liberal interests. Well now I can usually find something on PBS, almost every night that I find interesting.
All I want is unbiased, center of the road reporting to be done by Frontline reporters. Let's take the last report, "Obama's War," for example. When Frontline covered "Bush's War" last year, he was dragged through the coals! In this past report, there was no mention of the billions being spent each month, like in last year's report. There was no mention that Obama promised to get our soldiers out of Iraq, nothing at all was said that was contrary to Obama's policies. Don't be afraid to tackle Obama. You didn't mind doing the tough reporting when it came to Bush.
Well, how long did it take Vietnam to become "Nixon's War"? My recollection is that it was Nixon's war by the time of the November 1969 "Vietnam Moratorium" marches given much press coverage at the time.
Mark Richard, Columbus, OH
The Perceptive Ms. Born
My hat's off to PBS for broadcasting on Frontline — "The Warning." Brooksley Born is a true American hero to have the knowledge, integrity and foresight to challenge the debacle of the derivatives market. Great viewing — keep up the good work.
John Robitaille, Glastonbury, CT
I'm a longtime PBS supporter and would like to strongly commend the Frontline report on the financial meltdown and Brooksley Born. First-rate reporting.
Cedar Rapids, IA
I just finished watching Frontline's special "The Warning" and wanted to provide my feedback. This type of journalism is what has assisted the collapse of this country. You guys were either afraid or lacked the balls or possibly were ignorant of the facts behind this story. Greenspan is part of the Global Elite and the New World Order and he along with his . . . comrades in government intentionally have played out a plan of collapsing the American Empire. You failed to go to this level of reporting. Our country will collapse within the next two years and you guys are partly to blame. Did any of the reporters make the connection about the Bankers Trust and who had control of this Bank? Of course not.