Following a very public dustup, Frontline and correspondent T.R. Reid have parted ways. The split leaves series producers and freelance on-air correspondents examining their complex and sometimes contentious relationship.
Which of them can claim ownership of a documentary — the producer who crafts the piece or the journalist whose face and voice make the personal connection to viewers?
In the case of Frontline’s “Sick Around America,” which aired March 31, it’s a sticky issue.
Reid expected the film to be a sequel to his April 2008 Frontline, “Sick Around the World,” which followed the former Washington Post reporter around the globe as he showed how well health-care systems worked in other developed countries, and found that some of the best were single-payer systems like Britain’s and Canada’s.
But “Sick Around America” turned into more of an overview, contrasting health-policy options for patients in the United States. Reid argues that the film came off as supporting mandated private-insurance coverage. Frontline spokesmen bristle at that, insisting they presented a balanced job of reporting by showing many sides of an issue.
Reid says it’s a health-policy disagreement. Frontline execs say it’s a journalistic disagreement.
Lowell Bergman calls it a classic example of the conflicts between producers and correspondents that are, as he says, “legendary.”
And he should know. The former New York Times newsman has been on both sides of the relationship. He said he’s “lost count” of how many docs he’s made with Frontline, both as correspondent and producer.
“In the kind of in-depth documentaries on Frontline, correspondents may get deeply involved in reporting,” which is what leads to the friction, Bergman said from the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches investigative reporting.
Ultimately, said Frontline Executive Producer for Special Projects Michael Sullivan, “We are not an opinion series. We do a lot of analysis, and always look hard to include other arguments.”
And then the producer has the last word.
In this case, that was Jon Palfreman, who has won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work. He said a correspondent is valuable to “personalize” issues Frontline tackles—such as health policy, which can be dry and complex. Viewers follow a correspondent through the revelations and dead ends of the reporting process, asking questions for them.
But Palfreman — a journalism prof at the University of Oregon — said the format also “creates kind of a distorted image” that the correspondent is responsible for the film—a feeling that the on-air personality may also come to share. “That is potentially problematic,” he added.
Whose trip is this?
It’s not an overstatement to say that the earlier Frontline, “Sick Across the World,” which aired in 2008, was Reid’s film. It focused to a great extent on Reid and his international journeys. Here he is riding his bike through Japan; on a train, jotting notes between countries; on another train, baseball cap pulled over his eyes, snoozing.
“The point of the film was that all democracies cover [health-care costs for] everybody and spend half as much as the United States,” Reid told Current. “And frankly, most have better health results. All other countries provide high-quality, universal coverage.” Some have single-payer systems that cover medical bills from a fund administered by a government, insurance company or nonprofit entity. Others rely on many insurance companies — Japan has about 3,000, Reid said.
In the earlier film, Reid said, “we laid out those principles, found around the world,” based heavily on his previous reporting on the subject. He was credited as a writer and correspondent.
No problems arose between Reid and Palfreman, the producer said. He relied on Reid’s reporting, “and most of the editing details I took care of.”
The second film was done differently. “Generally all details were handled by me and my production team.” Reid’s role, he said, was “more as a knowledgeable interviewer, doing big policy interviews.” Palfreman was credited as writer, producer and director.
The conflict emerged when Reid viewed an early version of the second film, about a month before air date. He said he felt that it “didn’t follow the precepts of the first, or its lessons.”
Reid strongly advocates universal health care in America. He ran for a seat in the Colorado General Assembly on that platform during a special election in February. His book coming out in August is titled The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.
Reid saw himself as more than a reporter for this Frontline project. “I was their health-care policy expert” he said, “and when I told them it was wrong, they didn’t change it.”
Frontline execs tried to keep Reid in “Sick Around America.” Palfreman met with him at Reid’s home in Denver; the series boss, Executive Producer David Fanning, called Reid several times from China. (Fanning could not be reached for comment.)
Reid said he suggested changes, “but their answer was, ‘You know health policy, but you don’t know filmmaking’ — and that’s true,” he admitted. He wanted it to be more analytical and thus not as “fast-moving” as the first. “They like fast-moving,” Reid said of Frontline’s style.
So, late in February, Reid dropped out of the project. He asked that his name not be associated with it and his on-air segments edited out.
The departure surprised Sullivan, who was at the helm in the absence of Fanning.
In more than 20 years with Frontline, Sullivan could recall only one project that had a team member drop out. That was in 2003, on “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“We had worked with Anthony Summers on that,” Sullivan said. The British producer’s 1980 book Conspiracy had posited that Oswald was not solely responsible for President Kennedy’s assassination.
After the producers dug into the evidence, Sullivan said, “we drew a conclusion different from his.” Summers removed his name from the film.
Missed opportunity for point of view?
Health-care activist bloggers had been anticipating Reid’s appeareance in “Sick Across America.” After it aired without him, several declared that Reid had been censored. Some unaware of copyright ownership distinctions were no doubt confused to find public TV calling the shots on a Frontline film though they recall PBS celebrating Ken Burns’ freedom to make his own choices about The War.
Viewers expressed disappointment in comments on the Frontline website. Several tepid-to-critical reviews ran in the mainstream press, some wishing the doc been stamped with a clearer point of view.
PBS ombudsman Michael Getler noted numerous viewers complaining about the film and expressing support for universal health care. “I find myself in agreement with those who wrote initially and who felt it was a missed opportunity by Frontline to shed some light on where this specific idea — clearly telegraphed in the previous program about how other countries do it, enjoying some level of popular and professional support and formalized in a bill before Congress — stood in today’s political environment.”
Frontline defended the program in a statement on its site, saying in part that the program “made no assertions about the path health care reform should take, but simply reported on the current state of health insurance in the country, focusing primarily on how inadequacies in the current private health insurance system, both for-profit and nonprofit companies, were negatively impacting many Americans.”
The Frontline documentary Reid would have made, as he imagines it, would have had a harder edge. It would have probed coverage alternatives that could achieve health care for all Americans. It would have made what he terms a “moral comparison” between countries that care for all of their citizens and our country, which lacks that comprehensive medical coverage.
But is an on-air reporter insisting on a “moral comparison” by advocating his own viewpoint pushing too much of himself into a film?
Activist filmmaker Michael Moore has made a name for himself doing just that. He is a prominent part of the narrative. In Moore’s films, “it’s so clear that it’s his opinion, it’s almost half him and half the issue,” said Michele Meeks, publisher of The Independent, a prominent magazine for independent producers. “So the viewer knows, okay, this is his bias, not the entity that’s presenting it.”
Avoiding bias, or anything that looks like it, can be especially tricky for documentaries that run on PBS, Meeks said. Indie producers know the network’s stringent journalistic guidelines. Because its stations are partially taxpayer-funded, Meeks said, news and documentary programming on PBS cannot appear to be biased.
But by shying away from Reid’s version of the film, Meeks said, perhaps PBS may ultimately have done its viewers a disservice.
“Rather than having one really bland piece, it would be better to have two or three pieces biased in different directions,” she said. That way, “it would generate more discussions about the issues, and a journalistic balance would still be achieved.”