Last month, I described 2013 as the year I lost faith in one of the few bastions of TV journalism in which I still believed: "60 Minutes."
I vowed to look in new places in 2014 for TV journalism I could confidently tell readers to trust.
I found one today, but it's not on TV. It's online at the New York Times as a video accompanying a report by Mark Mazzetti on a break-in at an FBI office in suburban Philadelphia in 1971.
Why should we care about that break-in by a group of political activists and amateur burglars hoping to expose secret and possibly illegal FBI activities -- a break-in that took place more than four decades ago?
Because without knowing about it, you cannot possibly understand or intelligently judge the actions of someone like Edward Snowden in trying to bring secret government activities that threaten democracy to light today.
You can read Mazzetti's report and see the video here. (The video also appears at the top of this post.)
Typical of savvy web editing/packaging, you can either read or watch at the Times site, and still get the full story. But doing both is a much more enlightening and richly textured experience.
And I promise you will be about 1000 percent smarter about the issues involved in the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
The Times story is pegged to the release of a book, "The Burglary," by Betty Medsger, a former Washington Post reporter. Medsger is the reporter to whom the burglars sent copies of the FBI data gathered in their burglary. Think Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers and the New York Times. The Post carried page one stories by Medsger on the documents.
The video about the burglars and their place in U.S. history was done by Retro Report, not the Times. But the newspaper's website, to its credit, regularly carries videos from Retro.
As I watched, I kept thinking how much the video reminded me of all the reasons I used to so love "60 Minutes." And then, I went to Retro Report's website and found perhaps the reason why: The managing editor comes from "60 Minutes" as does at least one of the contributing producers. Check out the masthead. It's one of the most impressive you'll see at any TV news organization.
Retro Report self-describes on its website as a "documentary news organization launched in 2013 as a timely online counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle."
Here's more from the website:
Combining documentary techniques with shoe-leather reporting, we peel back the layers of some of the most perplexing news stories of our past with the goal of encouraging the public to think more critically about current events and the media.
Retro Report is founded on the conviction that without a smart, engaging and forward-looking review of these high-profile events – and the news coverage surrounding them – we have wasted an opportunity to understand the lessons of history.
The accelerating information age makes reversing this trend only more crucial. With journalistic success increasingly measured in page views, retweets and Facebook likes, there is dwindling interest or ability among news organizations to follow up on the stories they cover.
I love what Retro is trying to do. And after three decades of writing about media and an earned Ph.D. in studying it, I absolutely believe in the importance of such context. Without it, instead of informed citizens, we are easy pickings for the propagandists in government and the ideologues of cable TV.
Please check out this video and Retro Report, and let me know what you think.
The best TV journalism I have found so far in 2014 isn't on TV, it's online -- just like the best TV drama, "House of Cards," streams at Netflix instead of airing on network or cable TV.
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