Skip to main content

Where Journalism and Filmmaking Intersect: 20 Years of 'Frontline'

By Ann Putney

In Spring 2002, news headlines announced that PBS would add four new episodes to its venerable documentary series Frontline with a new format examining international affairs. What the news didn't mention was that these four episodes, under the rubric Frontline/World (co-produced by WGBH Boston and KQED San Francisco), hinted at Frontline's origins 25 years earlier.

Frontline was launched in January 1983, having evolved from WGBH'S 1977 international public affairs documentary series, World. The series was produced under the leadership of Peter McGhee, who then ran public affairs programming at WGBH, and David Fanning, his protégé. According to Fanning, "Peter gave me...a conversation—one that still goes on—about the importance of ideas and the possibilities of television, and about all kinds of other things, from clamdigging to novels to Middle Eastern politics." And over the past 20 years, Frontline has shown a commitment to good journalism, storytelling and a greater understanding of the world in which we all live.

Fanning, Frontline's executive producer since its launching, drafted the concept and budget for the series on the back of a napkin in 1981 while having lunch with Lewis Freedman, then director of the Program Fund at Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At the time, Fanning was looking for support for some international documentaries and ended up discussing the creation of a domestic documentary series with a 26-week life span.

From the beginning, Frontline has continually challenged its independent producers and staff with communicating a journalistic piece as a dramatic story. Topics have ranged from foreign affairs to family matters, social issues to criminal justice, politics to the press—all the while steering away from the conventional use of sound bites or b-roll. Fanning states, "We are engaged in a more thoughtful form of journalism... We are closer to The New Yorker than to the weekly news magazine or daily newspaper."

Fanning contends that good documentaries, unlike script-driven movies, are a more difficult filmmaking process. He defines a documentary as "a collection of found objects: fragments you've collected, accidents of interview and happenstance, pieces of stock footage that surface in the course of six to nine months of research and production." Documentary narrative lines are, of course, often revealed during the editorial process. Instinctually, the story unfolds as idea-driven sequences are being cut and placed within the proper context of generally three to five formally constructed acts.

Frontline's executive editor Louis Wiley clarifies: "Editorial input at the rough cut and fine cut sessions is devoted to asking questions about the fairness and clarity of our reporting, as well as the power of our storytelling structure." Furthermore, Lowell Bergman, a Frontline producer since 1989, finds that writing the script after sequences have been cut lends itself to designing a creative, original program, as opposed to a formulaic one. The end result transports the viewers on a journey—one that includes delightful diversions and surprises, while strengthening the story's central point.

Fanning and Michael Sullivan, executive producer of special projects, confidently support and nurture the work of all of the series' award-winning producers, among them Bergman, Ofra Bikel, Bill Cran, Peter Boyer, Neil Docherty, Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman, Sherry Jones, Michael Kirk, Ben Loterman, Bill Moyers, Jon Palfreman, Martin Smith, Hedrick Smith, Shelby Steele, David Sutherland and Helen Whitney. Over the last 20 years, Frontline has worked with over 200 producers, who have demonstrated an insatiable curiosity and a motivation to explore all sides of an issue. Mutual trust and respect between the Frontline brass and its producers have encouraged each producer to approach the work with a certain degree of autonomy.

Bikel, who worked on the first World season, is compelled to work on stories where she has the potential to learn something new on a subject that has already been covered by the media. Specifically, she is motivated to understand the difference between the reality and perception within systems or organizations. For example, The Case for Innocence (2000) illustrates how men convicted of murder and other dangerous crimes were eventually acquitted by DNA evidence. Bikel examines an anti-capital punishment position that most media fail to cover by showing politicians who are willing to use innocent lives as a means to garner support of the pro-capital punishment establishment. "You are looking for an idea," Bikel comments. "How can I tell a story, make it interesting and not preach to people-and [still] make it obvious that something is wrong?"

Similarly to Bikel, Bergman, a visiting professor at University of California at Berkeley's graduate journalism program and contributor to The New York Times, is intrigued by "the appearance of things versus the essence of things, particularly in the context of history." Bergman demonstrates this point to his students by discussing "The Allegory of the Cave" in Plato's Republic.

Frontline operates West Coast offices for the series on the UC Berkeley campus, where Bergman often nurtures new talent by feeding graduate students leads from the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit vehicle to get little-covered stories written. If a story is of interest, students sometimes get hired to report on it by The New York Times, which in turn does co-productions, through New York Times Television, with Frontline. Collaborations with the other news and broadcast organizations such as BBC, ABCNews Nightline, National Public Radio and The New Yorker have enabled Frontline to explore more diverse programming.

The standard response from networks to a proposed Frontline story might be  "So what?" but Frontline producers insist that these stories do matter. Such is the case in Bergman, Docherty and David Rummel's recent film, A Dangerous Business (2002). They ask the question, "What do you think the federal penalty is under OSHA law for willfully and negligently killing a worker?" The surprising answer is it is only a misdemeanor. "More than 200,000 people have died at work since the law passed over 30 years ago and only 151 of those cases have been referred for criminal prosecution by the federal government," says Bergman. "And only eight people have gone to jail. "

These "So What?" stories have generated national attention by shedding light on important and difficult issues. Close to a dozen documentaries have been the impetus for profound change or organizational enlightenment. Bikel's 1991 duPont-Columbia Journalism Award-winning Innocence Lost profiled a North Carolina community divided by reports of sexual abuse at the town most popular day care center. Bikel's ability to tell a complex story of the prosecution's case at an intense level of detail is what eventually helped to clear the defendants. She produced subsequent programs on the subject in 1993 and 1997. Additionally, Bergman and Martin Smith explored America's 30-year war on drugs in Drug Wars (2000). The thorough investigation of policy-makers, the DEA, the FBI, customs drug agents and drug traffickers sparked a variety of responses, from screenings at the White House, to review of the 1986 mandatory minimum drug laws, to influencing the producers of the television program The West Wing.

With impacts such as these, one can understand why Frontline staff was disheartened when long-form public affairs documentaries were being dropped in the 1980s by network television. The strictures of commercial breaks made it increasingly difficult to tell a single narrative, and 60 Minutes cleverly demonstrated a formula of telling a story between commercial breaks. Thus gave rise to today's prominent news magazine format, which features larger-than-life correspondents who tend to detract from the story itself. According to Bergman, "What the shift was about was away from in-depth news reporting to....content that sells."

Frontline receives financial support from PBS, commercial sponsors, foundation underwriters and "viewers like you" Wiley, who has been a part of the editorial staff for close to 12 years, explains that commercial sponsors and foundation underwriters are keenly aware of Frontline's intent to "vigorously guard its journalistic reputation." Earthlink, the Internet service provider which has sponsored the series for two years, serves as a good example of how Frontline communicates with its sponsors. Essentially, Earthlink was told from the beginning that Frontline might report on the Internet and wouldn't waiver from controversial issues, even if they involved Earthlink. The Internet company was also informed that its name would be eliminated in the event of a potential conflict of interest.

The series has also attracted significant support from such foundations as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Wiley insists, "The editorial decision to do these programs comes first, then a proposal is written seeking support, and part of that process involves checking to be sure that a foundation has not taken an advocacy position on the subject matter." At no time is a foundation or corporate sponsor involved in the editorial process.

Since 1995, Frontline has maintained and developed a comprehensive editorial website ( that has enabled the series' staff to extend a program's shelf-life by streaming clips and providing viewers with the ability to investigate stories further. The website is a place for programs to be transparent and interactive, supplemented by in-depth interviews, original source documents, photo collections, chronologies, related readings and links, exclusive reports, sidebar stories and other investigative pieces. The audience wants to interact with what the programs have to say,  and vice versa. "People are keeping their computers on at the same time they are watching the program," Fanning notes. 

Frontline has particularly demonstrated its programmatic prowess with its strong offerings of post-September 11, 2001 inquiries. In fact, the issues, politics and key figures surrounding that cataclysmic day were explored in the 1980s, and Frontline produced programs on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as early as 1998. This season, Frontline has aired seven programs that highlight the realities and perceptions of terrorism and America's vulnerability.

The spirit of journalistic inquiry on television-the roots of which go as far back as Edward R. Murrow's See It Now and Harvest of Shame—thrives on Frontline. Every week for the past 20 years, viewers have been taken on a journey through issues and stories,  from the appearance of things to the essence of things, narrowing the gap between perception and reality.


Ann Putney  is a Los Angeles-based freelance documentarian with experience working for MacGillivray Freeman Films and Perpetual Motion..