Producing an investigative documentary for Frontline has always required diligent reporting and compelling video, but lately it’s also involved taking security measures to prevent reporters and camera crews from harm.
During a PBS presentation Wednesday for Plot to Overturn the Election, which examines the fraudulent claims made about the 2020 election, reporter A.C. Thompson revealed threats to his safety to a Zoom audience attending the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.
“The truth of the matter is that the reporting I have been doing for the last five years involves interviewing people who are armed and oftentimes very not happy with the mainstream media, not happy with me,” Thompson said.
During field production in Arizona with director Sam Black, the local crew said they would be uncomfortable filming a rally for former President Trump without extra backup and security because they had been threatened over and over, Thompson said. “This is a constant issue when you’re working for PBS or another sort of legacy media outlet or non–right-wing media outlet covering these issues,” he said.
Frontline now holds routine security meetings in connection with its documentaries, said Raney Aronson-Rath, series EP. “We have security briefings, we have check-ins, we have a security team … that really helps us troubleshoot this,” she said.
Firearms aren’t the only risk to reporters covering right-wing rallies, Thompson added. “We’re nervous about the men with guns in the room with us, and most days we are probably more nervous about the unvaccinated people who pose a health risk,” he said.
During a filming of a previous documentary about the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, Thompson and his crew tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolated for a long time in a hotel, he said. “It’s really hard to move in these circles without at times exposing yourself to risk,” he said.
Thompson’s new film, Plot to Overturn the Election, is scheduled to debut March 29. It focuses on a small cabal of Trump supporters who created election fraud conspiracy theories and how their actions resulted in demands for audits, voter suppression laws and political candidates who would remain loyal to Trump.
Aronson-Rath said the film will have an impact on a broad audience across the political spectrum.
“One thing I can say about the PBS audience, when we look at it through a partisan lens, it is pretty bipartisan,” she said. “You would be surprised.” PBS’ viewers have “a wide spectrum of partisan beliefs and ideologies. One of the things we are doing here … is showing how this idea was amplified. … Seeing it is believing it.”
Earlier in the day, a PBS panel delved into the character of Benjamin Franklin, the subject of a four-hour film by Ken Burns that’s scheduled for broadcast April 4 and 5.
Franklin was hailed for his brilliance as a writer, scientist, civic activist and diplomat. He had a genius for compromise, panelists said, but made a tragic mistake in favoring a constitutional provision that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person to appease Southern states.
“Compromises can be good things, but we always have to look at them a bit skeptically,” said Walter Isaacson, journalist and author of a Franklin biography. “The worst of all compromises, I think … is treating Blacks as three-fifths of a person. That was just an odious compromise. Whether it was done to help the South get representation or hurt the South, it was dehumanizing.”
Franklin knew the compromise was a mistake and spent his remaining years trying to rectify it, Issacson said. A slaveholder most of his life, he became an abolitionist. “Even more so than Lincoln, he believed that Blacks could be well-educated and were just as capable as whites,” he said.
Asked about his emphasis on slavery in the Franklin film, Burns acknowledged that as a filmmaker, “you make the film in whatever present moment you’re in.” However, he said, the issue of race is one he has been grappling with for years. “This is the central question of the United States,” he said.