PBS' 'Meltdown' is a standout among economic-crisis documentaries

The Baltimore Sun

Finally, the cavalry has arrived - or started to, anyway.

I am talking about the arrival of serious, in-depth TV journalism that seeks to explain how it is that the U.S. economy went so far off the rails last fall that virtually all the economists are using the phony metaphor of a "perfect storm" to explain the collapse - while trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility for all the subsequent suffering.

Last Thursday, CNBC premiered House of Cards, a solid two-hour documentary reported by correspondent David Faber. The strength of the report was found in Faber's ability to explain the various kinds of dubious mortgages that our morally challenged banking industry concocted to make piles of money while blowing up the economy.

I wish Faber would have been tougher in fixing blame and challenging some of the government officials who failed us, but he does give former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan lots of airtime and rope with which to hang himself. The documentary will air again at 9 tonight, as well as 8 a.m., 8 p.m. and 12 a.m. tomorrow.

The Fox News Channel, meanwhile, premiered Trillion with a T: How to Spend $1,000,000,000,000.00 last night. Hosted by anchorman Bret Baier, the one-hour report looks at what the government is now doing to try to get the economy out of the ditch rather than explaining how it wound up there. And that is, perhaps, not surprising since that editorial choice changes the focus from the Bush administration to that of President Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, the report features a team of investigative reporters working for the past month behind the scenes with senators, members of Congress and staffers, as well as liberal and conservative interest groups, as they fought over the latest stimulus bill.

According to a Fox spokeswoman, the report was not available for screening late last week because parts of it were still being edited Friday. But viewers can see it for themselves in replay today at 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.

And then, on Tuesday, comes one of the finest hours of nonfiction TV that I have ever seen in 30 years of writing about the medium - "Inside the Meltdown," a Frontline documentary from producer Michael Kirk that chronicles a week in September when the economic gurus lost their way and Americans started losing their jobs, much of their life savings and their trust in Wall Street and Washington. It is the first of five documentaries that Kirk will be producing for Frontline on the economy and how we got to where we are today.

"Watching the events of that week, it felt like 9/11 all over again," Kirk said in a telephone interview last week. "But because we don't have an image of something like a plane crashing into a building, I don't think anyone understands."

After Kirk shared that feeling with David Fanning, the executive producer of Frontline told him to do what it takes to explain the crisis to PBS viewers.

"How did it all go bad so quickly? Who is responsible? How effective has the response from Washington and Wall Street been? Those are the questions at the heart of 'Inside the Meltdown,' " Kirk explains.

The searing and illuminating film takes viewers inside the boardrooms with players like former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., as he made mistake after mistake in that time of crisis last fall.

Two of the people shown in the film as being alongside Paulson are Ben S. Bernanke, the current Federal Reserve chairman, and Timothy F. Geithner, the new Treasury secretary. Their proximity to Paulson will leave you with a shaky feeling about the hands now guiding our economic fate.

"I like character-driven narratives, and Paulson and Bernanke are certainly large characters. ... Paulson is Shakespearean," Kirk says.

He is not exaggerating. The documentary is as fast-moving and engaging as the feature film All the President's Men, and its power is delivered in part by the large characters making life-and-death decisions about our futures. None is larger or more arrogant than Paulson.

The Paulson decision that finally burst the bubble was letting Lehman Brothers fail. It set off a chain reaction that continues to this day.

I have been ranting since September about the abject failure of TV journalism to explain how this nightmare came to be our new reality.

Here's what I wrote on my blog Sept. 29, the day after the House rejected the first Wall Street bailout proposal: "Does anyone at CNN remember how to report actual honest-to-God facts, context, reaction and then weave it into a presentation that helps the average viewer understand what is happening at this time of crisis?"

The answer then for CNN and everyone else in TV journalism was a resounding no.

"Inside the Meltdown" redeems the entire industry. This is as good as TV or any other kind of journalism gets.

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"Inside the Meltdown," a Frontline documentary, premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on WETA-Channel 26.

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