Fanning on a ‘big bang’ moment for Frontline: bringing online depth to reporting

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David Fanning, e.p. of Frontline, discussed the WGBH program’s evolving use of the Web Aug. 23, 2010, in accepting the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

At the same time, the Center honored the winner and finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. One of the four finalists was a reporting project, including a Frontline doc, “Law & Disorder.” The film about white vigilante activities in New Orleans was prepared in collaboration with ProPublica, the Nation Institute and the New Orleans Times-Picayne. [More about Fanning’s award; video.]

It was the fourth Goldsmith career prize in five years to go to journalists working in public media. The award went to Gwen Ifill of the PBS NewsHour in 2009, to CBS veteran Daniel Schorr of NPR in 2007, and to NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer in 2006.

Fanning’s keynote:

Good evening, and thank you very much Tom (Patterson) — and to Alex Jones and the Shorenstein Center, Dean Ellwood and the Kennedy School, and of course the Greenfield family — this is truly a great honor.

I am moved, and humbled, to be counted among the distinguished journalists who have been given this award before — and to be in the company of so many talented reporters and editors here in the forum this evening — my congratulations to them all.

I’m not alone in believing that we should reinvent public broadcasting around a mission for journalism. Radio has already shown the way; television now has to step up and do a lot more.

This may be my career award, but there are a lot of careers that lie behind it — literally hundreds of journalists — talented producers and reporters, and the teams of people who worked with them — all of whom did the long hard work that became Frontline.

The greatest award for me is to have worked with them all, often very closely, and with extraordinary trust. Their work and those experiences, on the road and in their edit rooms, taught me most of what I know about how to be a journalist and editor.

I didn’t get to go to journalism school — there wasn’t any such thing in South Africa. In fact, there wasn’t any television! The government decided it was far too subversive and only allowed it in the country in 1976.

But at university I did edit the student newspaper in a country where some ideas were considered too dangerous, and some of my friends went to jail for reporting them. I also managed to make a documentary with a borrowed camera and some precious rolls of 16mm film in Soweto. We had no idea what we were doing — we had to invent the form ourselves — but it turned into my ticket out. First to the BBC — who bought my film — and then to California, where I’d earlier spent a year as an exchange student.

That’s how I walked into a small public television station in 1973, volunteered, hung about, got a job, and began making short segments and longer documentaries. It was a hands-on apprenticeship in broadcast journalism, and the beginning of my career in public television. The reason I’m still doing it, is because of what happened next.

In 1977 I was invited to come to WGBH in Boston. My boss, Peter McGhee, who would become my mentor, and who’s here tonight, took a chance on me: he offered this young, itinerant filmmaker/journalist the job of executive producer of an international documentary series, World.

What I found at WGBH was an extraordinary culture of enquiry — a place which celebrated ideas. It was a place that valued debate in programs like The Advocates and took on tough subjects like Arabs and Israelis and Vietnam: A Television History.

That respect for a wide range of opinions underwrote the journalism I found at WGBH. It was also a place that respected conclusions honestly come by: journalism has an obligation to fairness, but when it uncovers uncomfortable truths, it has an obligation to publish, without fear or favor.

In 1980, I wrote and produced a program for World called “Death of a Princess,” which made very serious charges against a senior member of the Saudi royal family — in effect, it accused the King’s elder brother of murder. It caused an uproar at the time, and lead to the breaking of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Great Britain.

There was a serious threat of similar action here in the United States. It was a time of oil shortages, and the State Department and members of Congress leaned very heavily on PBS to cancel the broadcast. At WGBH, my management was faced with their own pressures. The major underwriter for Masterpiece Theatre was Mobil Oil, which took out ads in the New York Times protesting the program.

Then, I remember being called in to a meeting with Peter and Henry Becton, the station’s president. Henry asked me if I was confident about the journalism in the program. I said I was, and that we could stand behind it.

Then he said that “in case the political pressures get too tough on PBS, we have rented space on the transponder of the satellite, and we’ll broadcast it to the country from Boston.”

I’ve never been prouder of the place I worked for.

As it turned out, the system stood behind the film, the sky didn’t fall, and as Peter McGhee said later, “It put a chock behind the wheel of public television.” It proved that the system could withstand great political pressure, and in many ways, laid the ground for Frontline.

When Frontline started in 1983, we were the subject of an article called “The Last Best Hope for the TV Documentary.” Already the magazine programs had taken over the network news divisions. What we were being given was an old-fashioned luxury — time.

It is the greatest treasure we’ve been given in public broadcasting. Time of course to think — and to rethink. Time to shoot and edit, and most importantly, to re-edit and re-write. And the greatest gift is broadcast time — an uninterrupted hour, or even a series of hours — to tell a complicated tale.

Yet they are hard films to make, these documentaries — to take the rough material of journalism, the interviews, the stock footage, the documents, the guilty buildings — and to weave them into smart stories — to bring filmmaking’s need for narrative structure and dramatic arc to journalism, and still remain fair to the facts.

It’s a potentially dangerous alchemy — the medium can be so manipulated — Words, pictures, music, can be turned to polemical purposes. We see that more and more these days, especially in the theatrical documentaries that get so much attention. Don’t be too impressed by them — they’re very easy to make. Polemics always are — it’s much harder to make a work of tough journalism.

So we looked for people who understood that we were going to make good documentary films, but we were firstly making journalism, and would do so within an editorial structure — that every line, and every image would be reviewed.

I was fortunate, the day I walked into WGBH, to meet someone who would help me do that. Louis Wiley, who’s also here this evening, was a graduate of The Advocates, a lawyer by training, and beneath a kind and gentle nature, a fierce defender of our journalistic standards and practices. He became my consigliere and my executive editor — he’s recently retired — and the man with the blue pencil who made sure no script was left unturned. Frontline would not be what it is without Lou Wiley.

There have been hundreds and hundreds of Frontline films — 600 or so — each one of them could take six, nine months, a year to make. Extraordinary efforts, book-length research behind them, hours and hours of interviews, and then, on a Tuesday night, at 9 o’clock, we threw it in the air, and some of it hit the satellite and bounced back, and the rest kept going to Mars. Television slipped through the fingers. We hoped someone tuned in at the right time, and waited for the postcards to tell us what they thought.

Then, there was one documentary that made a real difference in the way we think about what we do.

It was back in the early years of the World Wide Web — way back, in 1995 — Frontline was about to broadcast a film about the tragic confrontation in Waco, Texas. We’d got hold of tape-recordings of the secret negotiations between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, but we could only use part of them in the documentary, a few minutes at most.

We were sitting around the office, and I was asking if we could make some radio out of them, when someone — we can’t remember who, probably the intern, said “You can put them on the Web.” Really? What else can we put up? Interviews? Documents? The whole film? No, not yet.

Well, short of that, we put most of it up on the Web, and as best we know, that Frontline website, Waco: The Inside Story, was one of the first deep-content editorial websites in history. Not only that, but in publishing all those interviews and documents, we had made our journalism transparent. Anyone could hold our documentary up against the primary materials, and test our conclusions. It was a profound act, a Big-Bang moment — a real change in the contract between the viewer and the producer. From then on, we did it for every film.

Now, for the first time, serious work on television could have the weight of permanence. That had great implications — you’re doing it for the long view. And for the viewer to find whenever he or she wants. It was a clear challenge to the old broadcast order.

By 2000 Frontline was streaming its first video. We built our own video player for the website, and then added timed embedded links, not just to that body of work we’d researched and gathered, but other, important journalism. We had taken the bright line of the documentary narrative, and embedded it in its context.

So that now, when a Frontline film travels out, away from our website, syndicated to whoever wants to feature it, the plan is for it to carry those links, that intellectual armature.

Today, there are over 80 films on our website, and a program like Bush’s War has had over 6 million video views online; Obama’s War had almost 2 million, just weeks after broadcast. And our viewers find us — their thousands of comments, their engagement, their arguments, makes our stories more robust, and our journalism richer.

What started with our Waco film has become an essential part of our identity.

Recently I spoke at a breakfast at my local Rotary Club. Afterwards, the pastor of the Congregational Church came up to me. He told me that he’d been contacted by an old college friend he’d not heard from for years. Apparently his friend had been in the ATF [U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms], and he wanted to talk to the pastor.

As it turned out, the former ATF agent was haunted by guilt — he’d been involved in the death of one of the Branch Davidians in the first confrontation at Waco. The pastor told me that in order to call him back, and counsel him, he’d gone to the web, searched Waco, and the most useful place he’d found to help understand what had happened to his friend, was the Frontline website, our very first, almost 15 years later.

Here’s where I think this is taking us.

We’re very proud to be a part of the collaboration with ProPublica and the Times-Picayune that was honored here tonight — “Law & Disorder.” There’s lots of talk about journalistic partnerships these days, but this one, for me, is of a new order.

Our producer, Tom Jennings, sits in the ProPublica newsroom next to A.C. Thompson. He’s been reporting as well as shooting, and gathering over 35 hours of video as the investigation has been unfolding. With the Times-Picayune publishing in print as well, we’re in the process of inventing a new set of working relationships.

This is all new territory for us — the documentary elements are a work in progress — we haven’t made the film yet, and don’t know when we’ll broadcast. But as we build out our respective websites around this work, it may not be entirely coincidental that new breaks in the cases are emerging, with admissions of police misconduct. And I know that when we do broadcast a powerful documentary, with millions of viewers, we will drive the interest in the work even further. The reporters keep digging, and the story will keep getting better.

This is a new kind of editorial symbiosis between print and broadcast and online, but it’s also about fighting for the idea of the deep and complex story. I don’t need to tell you about the challenges for our attention these days — you can read a very good — long — article about it in last Sunday’s New York Times by Michiko Kakutani — but there is a real threat to the kind of journalistic narrative that has been the hallmark of Frontline. So our challenge is how we get people to pay attention..

Well, for a start, we have to keep doing really good work in our broadcast films, and we have to take our values into the new media space. We have no choice but to do that. And that means that we have to work on a very high order of excellence. We have to pick strong stories, and forge trusting relationships with new partners. We have to design our co-productions to work not just online, but on the new mobile devices, like the iPad, to integrate print reporting and video storytelling in a new vernacular.

This is extraordinarily interesting and challenging, but it’s also exhilarating. When I pick up my Kindle, and get hooked by a good nonfiction book, I can feel all the potential of the next generation of devices. If we take the stories we are working on and, with really first-rate writing and fine filmmaking, fold those two together, we are already ahead in the new world of e-publishing. That’s the promise of a collaboration like “Law & Disorder.” And we have the media resources that most conventional publishers can’t match. We can beat them at this new game.

I have a strong belief in the power of great stories, well-told, to have an enduring appeal — even in the face of all the distractions. And there is an enormous, intelligent audience out there — millions — who buy and read books, who care about ideas, and have for the most part given up on the idea of television delivering them smart and literate journalism. Now we have the technology to share our work at any time, and for years to come, and for people to pass around. They will come and find us, wherever we are, and we will find them.

So we need to work with our journalism partners to put our collective energies into organizing, designing and syndicating our work. It’s going to take a lot of these kinds of experiments to figure it out — it’s all about new ways of thinking and working, and understanding each other. And not on the level of executives who make high-flown promises of partnerships, but where people sit at desks next to each other, and do the work.

I’ve talked a lot, but please bear with me for a few moments longer.

I have spent my career in public television. I occasionally wonder about that — turning down the networks, and the dollars! — but the real reason is that I could never have created Frontline anywhere else. WGBH gave me a home for it, CPB, PBS and the stations have funded it, but it’s really the idea and mission of public broadcasting that has sustained it.

I believe deeply in that idea, but it needs reinvigoration.

We have a system of local stations who are struggling to hold onto a broadcast model that is outdated. Falling membership only leads to more pledge drives, and sometimes it seems that the main purpose of many of those stations is simply to raise funds for their own survival.

So we need an idea that can change the status quo. I’m not alone in believing that we should reinvent public broadcasting around a mission for journalism. Radio has already shown the way; television now has to step up and do a lot more. Together they could become formidable.

It’s also the best hope for the local stations. Imagine joining some of the new local online journalism startups with public broadcasters. What better way to embrace journalism but to bring it inside? Offer space in our buildings — all those bricks and mortar built over years of capital campaigns — and start recruiting a new media generation, with their great new HD cameras, their laptop editing, and their Web-savvy. Open up those studios, and begin practicing journalism on air and online.

It will of course be challenging at the local level. Taking aim at city hall, the state capitol and powerful financial interests will take courage and leadership, and the kinds of editorial protections I was given at WGBH. But if the station hires a good managing editor, and adopts a code of journalistic practices, it can erect a firewall between the licensee, the board, whoever — and the journalists.

Some stations are doing that, and all it needs is a couple of dozen more, in regions around the country, for public broadcasters to begin a public media transformation. And those stations should be rewarded with funding, encouraged by CPB and the public financing system to do just that — live up to their public interest obligations. Otherwise, they will, and should, become irrelevant.

Which comes to the second part, on the national level: What we need most in public television — to match our colleagues in radio — is great journalism. Much more of it.

So this is what I’d suggest: put together a Public Journalism Fund — foundations, individuals, public money. And we go out and simply get together the best journalists we can hire. (That’s exactly what ProPublica has done.) We make sure also to bring in a new generation of reporters who are used to the daily demands, the drumbeat of reporting in the online world. And then, we open up a new public media space online — to publish in the space between radio and television, but to use programs in both media to drive attention back to those online and print stories.

The key for a series like Frontline is to integrate our productions into that real and virtual newsroom, and to make sure that we set editorial agendas to support each other. I also know my colleagues in public television need and want to have access to this quality of reporting, so they have every imperative to do so as well.

If we do this smartly, we will get a lot of attention. Public broadcasting will immediately become more relevant to the national conversation, attract some of the best talents in journalism, and we capture a key piece of the journalism landscape. This is not one more aggregation site, or collection of bloggers, but concentrates on enterprise reporting. That’s going to be the most valuable commodity around in a universe of instant news and disposable punditry.

If we also partner with other new public media enterprises — like the other non-profit investigative entities — and the existing assets of public radio and television — you can see the outlines of a new powerful journalistic enterprise. It can have the sort of gravitational weight that will rearrange the universe of public media. And it has a feedback loop: it will change the ecology of our broadcast schedule — new programs have to come out of it, in turn driving viewers back to the continuing journalism.

Compared to any other new-media startup, this has an enormous asset — that network of local stations and community connections and their new journalistic calling. The stations will be getting a new source of programming for their communities, the network has bureaus, and the best of those stories become part of the national front page.

And here’s where we are different from most new media/journalism startups — this has a business plan that works. It’s been proven: membership. People give to public broadcasting in ways that few other institutions can match. Why is that?

According to the Roper Poll, public broadcasting is far and away the most trusted entity in the country. It’s also a civic trust. That’s because the government in effect says it is, and puts tax dollars down to prove it. There’s an argument that that’s why we as citizens in turn give to it in such significant amounts. That’s a contract unique to public broadcasting.

So that’s what distinguishes this business plan — if you add in revenues from philanthropy, and public money, from the congressional appropriation — you have a membership-driven, publicly supported, non-profit model for enterprise journalism.

And back to that issue of trust: we have a record of fairness. At a time when many media enterprises are taking a partisan stance, when cable news, and websites publish from their political perspectives, there has to be some place for the honest broker. That’s our real birthright as public interest broadcasters and journalists. It’s becoming an old-fashioned idea, but I deeply believe it will become increasingly valuable. And it’s the people who value fairness and honesty who will support it financially and politically.

And that’s important because this reinvention is a political challenge of the highest order. At the heart of this big idea is more public funding. It will require the attention of Congress and the administration, the setting aside of egos and unprecedented partnerships. But it is essential, for our survival, and the important idea that has been public broadcasting.

And that’s my selfish dream — that Frontline will be there in the future, a part of something bigger, and proof that this sort of journalism matters.

Thank you again for this award, and thank you for listening.

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