David Zurawik

Frontline offers harrowing, revealing look into ISIS tonight

There have been times the last few years when it has felt like "Frontline" was the last, hard-hitting journalistic outfit left on American television.

Screening its latest report, "The Rise of ISIS," was another one of those moments for me. It premieres at 10 tonight on PBS. Don't miss it.


This is a superb work of journalism that explains how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria came to be and where it might be headed. It's harrowing, informative and thought-provoking. Nothing I have seen about ISIS on cable or network news comes close.

A big part of the story, which is carefully reported, involves the failure of the Obama administration to act on the information about ISIS that was available.


As Martin Smith, who reports the piece for "Frontline," puts it, "This documentary lays out ... the buildup of unheeded warnings, failures, and missed opportunities that allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to become ISIS."

This is not Fox News saying the Obama administration failed us. This is Martin Smith saying it on PBS, and no one knows the story of the American debacle in Iraq better. Smith has been covering Iraq for "Frontline" since 2003, and he is once again in a league by himself on this story.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, speaks for the administration in the piece, and his calculated words seem pitiful up against the powerful reporting of Smith and "Frontline."

This is the kind of reporting "60 Minutes" used to do when you could still believe in it.

A warning: Some of the video and other imagery of death in this documentary is graphic.

"Frontline" shows what mass execution looks like, and it is so shocking you have to remind yourself this isn't archive video of Nazi barbarism in World War II. This is today, and the men pulling the triggers at point blank range on their victims have vowed to do the same to U.S. citizens. We need to see it in the raw to know what we face.

You want a reason to believe in PBS? Here it is with "Frontline" again doing superb and daring work aimed at providing viewers with trustworthy, non-partisan information above all else.

Sadly, that's in sharp contrast to the vast majority of TV journalism today -- "PBS NewsHour" included.