"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

PBS' 'Frontline' examines ways politics, business hurt news media
San Francisco Chronicle
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
February 13, 2007

The timing couldn't be better for the four-part "Frontline" series "News War" premiering tonight on PBS. Not only does tonight's first episode explain why non-journalists should care about the Valerie Wilson leak investigation trial unfolding in a Washington, D.C., courtroom -- it uses the probing, contextualized "Frontline" style to answer a question on a lot of lips:

What's wrong with the American media?

Readers didn't need a week of front-page stories about diaper-wearing astronauts and the alleged cultural significance of Anna Nicole Smith to tell them that the Fourth Estate is having an identity crisis. There's also last week's Pentagon inspector general report criticizing the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence, reminding Americans that most of the Beltway media danced to the White House's drumbeat to the Iraq war four years ago.

The 4 1/2-hour "News War" series traces the pathology crippling the media business -- financially and legally -- back to the days of the Nixon administration. What it reports is not necessarily new, but it is one of the first televised efforts to connect the factors transforming the news industry at this critical juncture in journalism. And many of the key players -- on both sides of the camera -- are in the Bay Area.

Over its four parts, "News War" explains the significance of recent media controversies, including BALCO-investigating Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams -- who could face jail time in the next few weeks -- and San Francisco blogger Josh Wolf, who recently became the nation's longest imprisoned journalist for refusing to turn over digital footage to police.

The last two installments of "News War" -- which, in true deadline-pushing tradition are still being edited and unavailable for preview -- are likely to include interviews with Google and Yahoo executives, whose companies are taking readers and advertisers from traditional news sources without paying much for the newspaper content they aggregate. Daily Kos blogger founder Markos Moulitsas, a Berkeley resident, also was interviewed to show how readers are pursuing new, more interactive media sources.

In between are a parade of journalistic all-stars, and not all of them come off looking great. Influential Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, whose Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped topple Richard Nixon, admits that he blew it when he said the chance of never finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq "is about zero."

"It was totally wrong," Woodward said in the first segment of "News War." "I think I dropped the ball there. I should've pushed much, much harder (investigating the reality of WMD)."

In the first two installments, "News War" explains how current efforts by federal prosecutors to chill investigative journalism by trying to coerce reporters to reveal confidential sources is not a new story. Neither is the White House's push to kill stories that allegedly threaten national security -- such as the New York Times expose that the National Security Administration is listening to citizens' phone conversations without warrants. The media faced similar issues in the early 1970s during the publication battle over the Pentagon Papers and for its coverage of the unpopular Vietnam War.

The difference now, said Berkeley-based "Frontline" correspondent and co-writer Lowell Bergman, is that the financial and legal landscape of the journalism industry has changed. Major newspapers, which traditionally have been the leaders in investigative reporting, were more financially robust 35 years ago. Now that they're financially weaker and not held in as high public esteem, they're in a more vulnerable position.

At the same time, the legal protections that have enabled the use of confidential sources for nearly four decades are under attack by the Bush administration.

And when publishers cut costs, investigative reporting -- one of the most vital checks on government power, as the Watergate coverage showed -- is often the first to go. Next up on the budget chopping block, frequently, is foreign reporting, something that major television networks said they'd increase after the Sept. 11 attacks as a way for Americans to better understand the world. That hasn't happened.

"The economic foundation that was very prosperous for decades is now in trouble at the same time (as the shifting legal landscape)," said Bergman, an award-winning investigative producer and reporter at "60 Minutes" and the New York Times.

"Universally, what everybody is saying, from the CEO of Google on down, is that you're going to lose some in-depth reporting," Bergman said. "And the watchdog role that the news industry developed, particularly newspapers over the last four decades ... is getting damaged."

"Part of what we have in the documentary is a historical flashback," Bergman said. "People under 40 don't know where we were then, where we are now and how things can change."

Providing that perspective for "News War" are three prominent Bay Area residents who developed, largely funded and executed the series. Bergman, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Dean Orville Schell and Bay Area philanthropist Richard Goldman.

Schell came up with the idea three years ago, largely out of frustration with the state of journalism. Many respected journalists had visited his school and told him they were depressed by the ways the business was changing.

Schell began having a version of this conversation with Goldman.

"In my early life, it never came up that the news was slanted or that the business was under pressure," said Goldman, 86. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation eventually gave $1.5 million to the "News War" project, one of the largest individual donations in "Frontline's" 24 years, and more than half of the $2.5 million budget. Goldman said, "We were influenced by Orville. He's a very persuasive guy. And Lowell has a very good reputation." The series is a co-production with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where Bergman teaches investigative journalism.

The challenge now is getting people -- especially those younger than 40 -- to tune into a 41/2-hour PBS documentary, not usually a neon come-hither to younger audiences.

"Most of the country doesn't really care about anything other than local news and a little entertainment," Schell said. "And I don't really worry about having everybody eat their broccoli."

But he hopes the series' appeal will ripple outward from the nation's intelligentsia to "those who desperately care about having a free press able to deliver accurate information."

"News War": Four-part "Frontline" documentary. 10 p.m. today. Continues Feb. 20, Feb. 27 and March 27. KQED. Related documents and interviews available at www.pbs.org/frontline/newswar.

E-mail Joe Garofoli at jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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