celebrating 20 years of FRONTLINE
FRONTLINE's impact
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20 years / 420 programs
david fanning

By casting a national spotlight on complex and compelling issues, FRONTLINE not only illuminates them, but also serves as a catalyst for change, extending a documentary's impact far beyond its initial broadcast.

photo of atlantic states

» In January 2003, the U.S. government initiated a criminal investigation into McWane Inc., a major manufacturer of cast-iron pipes in the U.S. and Canada. The investigation began the same month that The New York Times and FRONTLINE's joint reporting on McWane -- a series of Times articles and FRONTLINE's program "A Dangerous Business" -- showed how McWane was one of the nation's most persistent violators of workplace safety and was illegally polluting the air and water in several states where it owns foundries.

Two months after the FRONTLINE/Times reports, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new "enhanced enforcement policy" on workplace safety. The head of OSHA said the agency's changed policy was prompted by the FRONTLINE/Times investigation.

» In June 2002, the state of North Carolina dropped all charges against Terence Garner, a 21-year-old inmate serving a 34- to 43-year sentence for an armed robbery and shooting he insisted he didn't commit. Garner was released from prison less than one month after FRONTLINE presented strong evidence of his innocence in the 90-minute documentary "An Ordinary Crime." The documentary ignited nationwide outrage over Garner's imprisonment, prompting thousands to write letters calling for his release.

Mark Montgomery, Garner's attorney, credited FRONTLINE with generating the national media attention needed to raise public awareness of Garner's case. "The people who hold the keys to the prison door are answerable to the public," Montgomery said. "When injustices in the system receive this kind of attention, the public will respond." Garner's mother, Linda Chambers, agreed, giving special credit to FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel for spotlighting her son's case. "If it weren't for Ofra," Chambers said, "my son wouldn't be coming home."

» FRONTLINE's "The Case for Innocence" is also credited with freeing innocent men from jail. The 90-minute film -- also produced by Ofra Bikel -- brought national attention to the cases of three longtime inmates who had been fighting for years for the right to undergo DNA tests that might exonerate them. The reaction to "The Case for Innocence" was both swift and dramatic: Hundreds of viewers wrote to FRONTLINE expressing not only their outrage, but also their intention to lobby their lawmakers to address the situation. Ten months after FRONTLINE's initial broadcast of "The Case for Innocence," all three of the profiled prisoners had been exonerated and freed as a result of new DNA tests.

» According to sources in the Justice Department and DEA, the documentary series "Drug Wars" was widely screened and discussed within law enforcement organizations and the White House. In particular, it sparked discussions about revisiting the 1986 mandatory minimum drug laws and putting more resources into education and treatment. FRONTLINE also learned that the producers of the popular series "West Wing" were influenced by "Drug Wars" to feature the issue in one of their episodes last year. In addition to seeing the films on PBS, they relied on FRONTLINE's Web site for factual information about incarceration rates, drug purity, and availability and rates of drug abuse over the last 30 years.

"Drug Wars" was featured as the topic of a forum about drug policy at Georgetown University Law School, which was carried live on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." Watergate prosecutor Sam Dash chaired the event. FRONTLINE succeeded in increasing awareness and stimulating public discussion of both the history and future of United States drug policy at a time when the issue had been all but ignored during the presidential campaign.

» In 1991, FRONTLINE broadcast "Innocence Lost," Ofra Bikel's duPont-Columbia award-winning profile of Edenton, N.C., a town torn apart by reports of sexual abuse at its best day-care center. Over the course of the next seven years, FRONTLINE and Bikel would follow the Little Rascals Day Care saga in a documentary trilogy of the prosecution and ultimate exoneration of the defendants.

Just days before the 1997 broadcast of "Innocence Lost: The Plea," prosecutors dropped all standing charges of sexual abuse against the remaining defendants, a decision influenced in part by the FRONTLINE investigation. The Washington Post wrote, "One reason for the plea bargain may have been that the increasing publicity, particularly in the TV series, had created some doubts inside and outside North Carolina as to the fairness of the trials." The Little Rascals defense attorney went even further: "Our Rascals defendants are free," he wrote, "because of you."

» FRONTLINE's documentary "Hot Guns," produced with the Center for Investigative Reporting, took viewers inside the illegal handgun market and followed federal agents as they investigated one of the biggest cases ever involving stolen guns and the black market gun trade. California State Assembly member Jack Scott authored the Firearms Manufacturing Accountability Act -- legislation intended to curb the black market sale of firearms -- as a "direct result of your documentary."

» FRONTLINE has returned time and time again to the corruption of the U.S. campaign finance system. In films like "Washington's Other Scandal," "The Fixers," "So You Want to Buy a President?" and "The Best Campaign Money Can Buy," FRONTLINE filmmakers delve deeply into this contentious and ongoing issue. The 1996 program "So You Want to Buy a President?" was read into the Congressional Record for hearings on campaign finance abuse, while the 1997 documentary "The Fixers" led to the Justice Department's first indictment and guilty plea for campaign finance violations in the 1996 presidential election.

» In a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting, "Your Loan Is Denied" examined the devastating effects of discriminatory mortgage lending practices on neighborhoods struggling for economic survival. The documentary led to a Justice Department investigation of red-lining in mortgage lending and a dramatic increase in the number of complaints that were formally investigated by the department.

» With access to secret government documents, audio- and videotapes, FRONTLINE's documentary "Waco: The Inside Story" probed the untold story of the fierce political infighting inside the FBI's Waco command center and in the corridors of power at the Justice Department in Washington. After broadcast, the FBI requested permission to use this documentary for hostage-situation training.

» In "Global Dumping Ground," correspondent Bill Moyers and producer Lowell Bergman investigated America's shadowy industry -- the international export of hazardous waste -- revealing how shipping deadly wastes to Third World countries has become an enormous business in the United States. The program was shown to members of the United Nations Environment Programme and prompted a U.N. resolution calling for a ban on the dumping of toxic waste from developed nations in the Third World. It also led to a crackdown in China on waste traffickers shown in the documentary who had claimed to be operating recycling companies.

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