Frontline: Public Television at Its Best

Posted by Michael Getler on

Last month, I took advantage of this space—normally focused on what some viewers feel goes wrong with one PBS offering or another—to pay an unsolicited compliment, as a viewer, to filmmaker Ken Burns for what I thought was an unusually imaginative and emotional 90-minutes of public service broadcasting about a school in Putney, Vt., that does an amazing job with young boys struggling with reading, speaking or behavioral disorders.

Now, I find myself again, just briefly, putting aside my ombudsman's hat to compliment, also as a viewer, the weekly investigative documentary series Frontline for its two-part, three-hour series "United States of Secrets" that aired on May 13 and May 20.

Part One"The Program"


Part Two—"Privacy Lost"

Over the years, I have written about Frontline dozens of times. It is, indeed, on the frontline of what is, unfortunately, a thinly-manned frontier of credible, hard-hitting investigative reporting—the reasonably timely kind that counts—presented by American television. Sometimes I have written critically about aspects of a Frontline presentation that viewers spot and I agree with. But it always has been in the context of what I see as an extraordinary and important hour or two informing the public about something worth knowing.

I'm not a television reviewer or critic in the sense of someone who works for a newspaper or magazine and surveys the broad range of TV offerings. So maybe I'm missing something. But my sense is that Frontline is, by far, the best investigative series of its kind anywhere on U.S. television, maybe in the world, and it is fortunate that it appears on public television. CBS's venerable "60 Minutes" is also, of course, usually very strong, but not, in my view, as in-depth and steady as Frontline.

I'm moved to make a special point of this by the "United States of Secrets" series produced by longtime Frontline filmmaker Michael Kirk, who has an especially good feel for programs delving into U.S. national security matters.

The point here is not to review this film. There are some of those available—although not nearly as many as I would have thought. Rather it is simply to note the power of this series and, in my view, the skill with which it was put together that allows one to watch, absorb and consider; whatever one's views on these very controversial subjects.

The main subjects are the supposedly ultra-secret U.S. National Security Agency and the now most famous or infamous, traitorous leaker or whistle-blower in U.S. history, Edward J. Snowden. But there are also the Bush and Obama administrations, the phone companies, the Silicon Valley data powerhouses, and an extraordinary cast of high-powered characters from government and the press.

Legitimate Intellectual Arguments

Whatever one thinks of Snowden and his actions, there are powerful, emotional, legal and frequently politicized arguments surrounding them. And there is also legitimate intellectual debate on both sides. That's where I find the particular strength of this series.

This is a story that has been told before, in parts, especially in newspapers and books. But it has been pulled together, with added reporting and interviewing, in a way that tells a story that needs telling to a wider—and especially younger—audience and can be watched without partisan feelings boiling and spilling all over it. There is plenty here to go around. The tale of the massive and growing surveillance state is well told, but so are the voices heard that bring us back to the fear and awesome responsibilities for those in authority in the aftermath of 9/11. This is, simply, superb public service television in the view of a frequently cranky ombudsman.

There are other related stories that have also been reported and recorded earlier in newspapers and later on Frontline—the incredible failure to connect the substantial threads of information collected by the FBI and CIA prior to the 9/11 attacks, and the more recent failure to pay more attention to the warnings from Russia about the men involved in the Boston Marathon bombing—that indeed go beyond the scope of the NSA/Snowden affair.

But if those earlier lapses still stick in your head, as they do in mine, you will want to watch and listen to these new three hours on Frontline to help you think about a very tough question for citizens and government that isn't going to go away: how a democracy needs to proceed in order to protect its people and their privacy.

Posted at 1:25 PM

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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