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Times TV finds soulmates in PBS’s Frontline, Now

Originally published in Current, June 2, 2003
By Geneva Collins

The venerable New York Times has discovered that not all news is fit to print—some of its best investigative work is being broadcast on Frontline, Now with Bill Moyers, Nova and The NewsHour.

Although nothing ever came of a plan for a nightly newscast produced jointly by the Times and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, relationships built out of those talks three to four years ago live on in the form of collaborations between the paper’s production company, New York Times Television, and several PBS strands, said Michael Oreskes, assistant managing editor and director of electronic news.

“We made a company strategic decision about that time that it was important to reach our audience not only through the newspaper but also through other media, including, obviously, the Internet but also through television,” said Oreskes. “We believe there is a high-quality, well informed, curious audience who believes in the kind of work the Times does and that we believe many of those people are the same people who come to PBS. We share a lot of the same values with PBS — a commitment to quality, a commitment to fair-mindedness, a commitment to the best possible work.”

Also shared, obviously, are the massive workload and expenses that are part and parcel of investigative journalism. These projects typically require months of planning, research, interviewing, fact-checking and legal review before an iota can be published or pixel broadcast.

Many of these Times-PBS coproductions have come about thanks to an investigative journalist who has ties to both the paper and WGBH’s Frontline: Lowell Bergman, the former 60 Minutes producer perhaps best known for his piece on tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that CBS balked at airing — an event recounted in the acclaimed 1999 film The Insider. (In the movie, Al Pacino plays Bergman with heroic bravado.) Bergman is now a fulltime reporter for the Times and teaches investigative reporting at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

“You can call me ambidextrous or hermaphroditic,” Bergman said of operating in both media, “or as I sometimes say to people, I’m going backwards into print.”

Lowell Bergman. Photo copyright by Philip Wyatt.Bergman’s association with Frontline goes back to 1990, when he took a leave of absence from 60 Minutes to work with the Center for Investigative Reporting (an organization he helped found in 1977) to produce a documentary on toxic waste dumping.

CIR had been feeding information to various network programs but was struggling to find outlets for much of its work. “I wanted to show them it wasn’t rocket science to produce your own program,” said Bergman. “Second, I wanted to take a leave of absence because I had already been doing magazine programs for over a decade. [60 Minutes Executive Producer] Don Hewitt used to yell at me that what I really wanted to do was documentaries, which were boring because they were all about documents.”
The piece, called “Global Dumping Ground,” with Bill Moyers as correspondent, was picked up by Frontline Senior Executive Producer David Fanning.

After his little dust-up with CBS over the tobacco story, Bergman got his job status changed to freelancer and reported for a 1997 Frontline segment, “Murder, Money & Mexico,” which went on to win a duPont-Columbia Golden Baton. His first byline with the Times came in 1998 when he did an investigation for both the paper and CBS Evening News on how Iran was sneaking weaponry through Canada.

Bin Laden subject of first joint effort

In April 1999 came the first formal Frontline-Times collaboration, “The Terrorist and the Superpower,” retitled “Hunting bin Laden” when it was updated and rebroadcast immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“That came about because . . . Lowell was reporting for the Times as well as for Frontline and we began a kind of cautious attempt on both sides to see if we could join our respective methods in a single enterprise,” said Fanning. “They [the Times] were very cautious at first, needed to be in the editing room and see at the end of the day what we had made out of this process.... that the sort of television we make is very different from a lot of the newsmagazines at network news operations.”

Other Bergman-connected Times-Frontline coproductions include a 2001 segment on the California energy crisis and this year’s “A Dangerous Business,” about the shockingly high death and injury rates at iron pipe foundries owned by the McWane Corp. [The partners in "A Dangerous Business" won Pulitzer, Peabody, Polk, DuPont-Columbia and IRE prizes for the project.] In each case, broadcast of the program is accompanied by an article or series on the subject in the Times. (Sometimes the reporters publish parts of the story ahead of the documentary airdate, if they are deemed time-sensitive by the paper’s editors.)

For several years Bergman was a contract reporter for the Times, but Oreskes said “our relationship with Lowell has actually deepened and grown in the last year” and he is now a fulltime staffer whose principal job is to work on Times Television projects with Frontline.

Two more Frontline segments involving Bergman are planned for this year. However, Times Television does not have a formal contract to produce a set number of segments for any PBS strand, said Lawrie Mifflin, director of television programming for Times Television.

Although Oreskes and Mifflin were loath to address these collaborations as a means of sharing costs, they do say Frontline probably couldn’t have afforded a nine-month, in-depth investigation like the one that went into producing “A Dangerous Business” alone. The paper paid the salaries and reporting expenses of reporters Bergman and David Barstow, and also paid two students of Bergman’s to do research for the project.

“If you took all the costs that the New York Times bore to make the story for the newspaper—hundreds of thousands of dollars — there’s no way even a Frontline budget, which is a pretty nice budget, could have supported that much quality, in-depth reporting. So it didn’t make the program cheaper, but it made it possible,” said Oreskes.

The Times probably didn’t save any money in doing the project jointly, but it gets more bang for the buck by getting a new audience for the hard work of its correspondents beyond the printed page, Oreskes said.

“A Dangerous Business” didn’t fit the mold of the other projects in that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. was a third coproducer on the piece. Frontline and the CBC have a longstanding relationship, and when it became evident in the investigation that a number of McWane foundries operated in Canada as well as the United States, the Canadians were brought aboard, said Fanning. A more Canada-centric cut aired in that country.

“What you’re doing is spreading the potential costs on a very big and expensive long-term production by Frontline bringing money to the table, the CBC having crews available as well. We knew this was going to be a long-term investigative production and those are not easy to budget, plan or invest in. You never quite know when they’re going to end,” said Fanning.

Bergman is not involved in all the Times-Frontline pairings. A segment slated to air June 19, “Public Schools Inc.,” features Times financial reporter Diana B. Henriques as a co-correspondent with longtime public TV journalist John Merrow. The segment is produced by Merrow’s Learning Matters in association with Frontline and the Times.

Bergman noted the significance of Times reporters like Henriques appearing on camera for the Frontline pieces. “At the [commercial] networks in a collaboration, only the network-certified star would be allowed on camera to conduct interviews,” he observed. At Frontline, “the class division in network news where the ‘big foot’ correspondent rules the roost does not exist. The information is the most important part of the process, along with good storytelling.”

Collaborations feed Now’s appetite

Collaborating with the Times represents a new way of doing business for Bill Moyers, said John Siceloff, senior executive producer of Now with Bill Moyers.

Before his weekly public affairs show launched in January 2002, Moyers had worked with other journalists individually but not with stand-alone organizations in formal collaborations, said Siceloff.

“What has changed for Bill is that the timeframe from conception to assignment to being on the air for his longer projects was measured in years. And for Now, it’s measured in weeks,” said Siceloff.

Times Television did four co-productions for Now’s first season, including “Radiologist Roulette,” about discrepancies in mammogram reading accuracy, and “Off the Clock,” which explored allegations from Wal-Mart employees that the company has cheated them out of hundreds of millions in overtime pay.

“We were very happy with these four collaborations. We were able to extend the very tough investigative work that had been done by the Times correspondents into a story that worked very well for us on air. We never looked at this as, ‘OK, how do we take this newspaper story and put it on the air?’” said Siceloff.

However, no projects with the Times have been greenlighted to date this year, he acknowledged.

“Now that we’re in our second year, one of the things we found was that the collaboration in itself takes a lot of our management time. It’s a different process than if I call up one of our in-house producers, who knows how we work and our style of storytelling. There’s a lot of cross-cultural communication and translating expertise [required for] a team that has never worked with us to get something on our air,” he said.

Now continues to use Times reporters and columnists as on-air experts, noted Siceloff, as does the NewsHour.
Times journalist and bioterrorism expert Judith Miller has reported for a number of Times Television-produced segments, including not only Frontline and the NewsHour but also a 2001 Nova episode based on the best-seller she wrote with colleagues Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War.

Nova’s “Bioterror” episode, which won an Emmy, is another example of leveraging Times print journalists’ resources, noted Mifflin. “Judy, Bill and Steve have done an enormous amount of reporting on bioterrorism. We want to reach new people with that information. That’s why the Nova program was so important to us. We think it was a good example of ... making a version for television that’s as high quality as what we do for the newspaper.”

Times-Discovery liaison won’t compromise work with PBS

Print-and-broadcast pair-ups allow those reporting complex stories to approach them from several angles. For Bergman it’s a gratifying way to put all those file boxes of material every documentary generates to further use. Companion websites serve as not only repositories for interview transcripts and excess footage but a place to post investigational updates.

For Siceloff, a key success of the mammography story was being able to provide the visuals — holding up a mammogram and showing how difficult it is to identify a cancerous node — while the print counterpart handled the statistics and regulatory issues that don’t play so well on television.

Times Television has produced material for many other outlets, including Discovery, National Geographic and ABC News. In April 2002 it entered into a joint partnership with Discovery Communications to manage the Discovery Civilization Channel, which was renamed the Discovery Times Channel.

“Our agreement with Discovery explicitly — we insisted — leaves us free to work with public broadcasting,” Oreskes emphasized. “We don’t view them as competition.” He said exploratory conversations are under way to see if a three-way deal could be arranged — rebroadcasting Times-PBS coproductions on the Discovery Times Channel to defray program costs, for example.

Collaborations pose headaches as well as benefits. Producers have to pitch to two organizations. Print reporters’ voluble sources may refuse to appear on camera. Getting the print and broadcast versions ready at the same time is a colossal juggling act. Sorting out the contractual rights and credits is a paperwork nightmare.

“What makes it worth the headache is for all the assets you bring together,” said Fanning. “It would make for an extremely difficult and complicated stew in the editing room if it wasn’t for the fact that everybody has come to know and trust each other.”

Web page posted Sept. 6, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee
Michael Oreskes photo courtesy of the New York Times.
Lowell Bergman photo copyright by Philip Wyatt.

Michael Oreskes


Times and MacNeil / Lehrer Productions tried to launch nightly newscast for PBS, 2000.


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