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PBS Ombudsman

Keeping Frontline on the Firing Line

Like a lot of folks of a certain age, I've watched programs on PBS for many, many years, long before I signed on as ombudsman. Mostly I watched documentaries and public affairs programs. Many of the iconic figures and faces that personified PBS and that we tuned in to no longer appear — William Buckley, Jim Lehrer, Robert MacNeil and, to some extent, Bill Moyers, who has a Zelig-like ability to keep showing up.

Buckley, whose famed "Firing Line" talk show began in 1966 and ran for an amazing 33 years, passed away in 2008. Lehrer stepped down as anchor of the PBS NewsHour in 2011 and MacNeil long before that, but both remain active behind the scenes in MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, which produces the nightly news broadcast.

Moyers is no longer distributed by PBS. His latest program, Moyers & Company, which debuted in January 2012, is distributed by American Public Television. However, many PBS member stations, all of which are independent, carry the new program. And it was just announced that an agreement between APT and PBS will allow that program to also be presented through PBS's online video player and mobile apps on a test basis that may bring more APT programs to PBS's digital platforms.

I mention all this for two reasons. One is that another of the iconic figures that has shaped PBS over more than three decades — but who has done that off-screen and whose face and voice may not be as familiar to people outside of television and journalism — seems to be edging, if not into retirement, then away from active leadership of PBS's flagship investigative series Frontline.

That person is David Fanning, the founding producer of Frontline and its guiding force throughout the program's 30-year history. It appears at some point he will be succeeded by Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer, a six-year Frontline veteran and, by all accounts, a talented and experienced journalist and documentary filmmaker.

The second, and main, reason for this slightly long-winded introduction is to call attention to an interview with Fanning just published in Current, the printed and online trade journal for public media. The interview, by Managing Editor Karen Everhart and Senior Editor Dru Sefton, is very long. You could probably watch a good chunk of a Frontline episode in less time than it takes to read the interview. Nevertheless, it is, in my view, very much worth reading because Fanning gives voice, as he has before, to the kind of drive and ambition that takes one back to the original motivations for public broadcasting's journalistic role in the 1960s.

PBS has had a lot of attention in recent months, in part because of Mitt Romney's probably ill-considered introduction of Big Bird into the first 2012 presidential debate, and because millions of viewers could not get enough of Downton Abbey.

To be sure, the NewsHour is still providing a solid hour of more in-depth news five nights a week than is generally available elsewhere. And Washington Week and Need to Know are providing weekly insights, along with the late night interviews on Charlie Rose. But some of what Fanning says in the interview reinforces a sense — which is all it is — that I sometimes feel as well of a lower, comparative profile for public affairs programming.

Here's Fanning's response, for example, when asked whether there was still an opportunity to create what was once called a "third space," a new independent entity that would produce greater collaboration between public television and radio as proposed in a 2009 report.

"There is still a space for us to do this. It's a question of the public television system making a concerted decision to say that public affairs journalism is important, and to make a bigger commitment. I believe that it is important, because I see it as one of the things that can distinguish public television. We've never made the commitment to it as deeply as we should, in terms of the mission of public broadcasting. As part of the entire spectrum of public television programming, we do have to compete with other programs across the landscape, but we can distinguish ourselves by doing work that nobody else is doing.

"It is a long internal struggle between that ambition and programmers' reluctance to support news and public affairs programming. That might be in part because they haven't been given enough good news and public affairs programming. It is hard to make, and expensive, to do original journalism. But that's how we get attention for our work — because we're doing original journalism, because we're breaking ground. This draws attention because we're doing it well, and it's hard to replicate.

"There are talented journalists around the country who would welcome a home and an opportunity to work in public television. As you see the rise of nonprofit newsrooms such as ProPublica, and the strengthening of the Center for Public Integrity and Center for Investigative Reporting and others, it makes sense that they would have a natural home with public television."

Earlier in the interview, he was asked about the essential criteria he would look for in a film subject. "You can't always claim that what you'll create will be a seminal film," he said, "but you can say that if we don't make it important, then it is probably not worth doing. That goes to the heart of what we should be doing in public broadcasting all the time. That should be the test of why we're here and what we do. You ask hard questions of the subject, and you make demands of the producers, so that they'll go out with those in mind. In return, we give them the time to do it right."

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