One of television’s most important cultural roles the last 70 years has been in helping shape national memory. For better or worse, the medium tells us what is worth remembering by the events it chooses to commemorate.
Some choices are obvious and easy: D-Day, 9/11, the moon landing, Pearl Harbor.
Most TV channels, networks and shows simply follow the consensus of dominant culture and those in power. But the great and daring ones remind us of events some might not want to even admit took place.
PBS Frontline is a great and daring journalistic TV franchise. It was the first to revisit the brazen Tiki torch march and murderous acts of white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA., on the first anniversary of those ugly events, which took place in August 2017. And it did so with a documentary investigating the neo-Nazis and racists engaged in the demonstrations who had not been brought to justice by Virginia or federal law enforcement authorities.
Tuesday night at 9, Frontline returns for a new season by remembering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered on Oct. 2, 2018, and then had his body hacked to pieces by a team of operatives from Saudi Arabia inside that country’s consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Saudi native then living in Washington, had gone to the consulate to obtain a certificate saying he was divorced, a document he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée.
As it did with Charlottesville, Frontline commemorate Khashoggi’s death by doing what it does best: investigating the forces and parties responsible for the crime, in this case most notably, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and his former close aide, Saud al-Qahtani. The gruesome brutality and repressive barbarism of the two is at odds with the image promoted by President Trump and some of his family members and top aides of a young prince bringing prosperity and reform to his country. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have steadfastly refused to publicly accept the finding of the CIA that Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, was responsible for the death of Khashoggi.
Trump plays a prominent role in this hard-hitting report on the rise of MBS and the horrible repression this so-called reformer has inflicted on the real reformers fighting for some freedom of expression and basic rights for women in his country.
Khashoggi was banned from writing or using Twitter while still working in Saudi Arabia following a piece he did criticizing Trump after the reality TV star was elected president. As the documentary shows, Trump and MBS are one, big mutual admiration society, with America’s president dancing the sword dance at a ceremony with the Saudi royals, while regularly tweeting support of the prince even after the role of MBS in the death of Khashoggi was impossible to deny by any fair minded individual.
And, oh, how Trump loves those billion dollar arms deals: our weapons for Saudi dollars. Remember how the president said he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize those sales when pressed on his unwillingness to denounce MBS in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder.
One of the keenest insights in this report involves the way MBS went from using Twitter to weaponizing it under the direction of al-Qahtani. And I don’t mean weaponizing just in a metaphorical sense.
In the film, Deborah Amos, of NPR, describes the arc of Twitter in Saudi Arabia as MBS started using it for political control as going from “an open platform where people felt comfortable expressing opinions to something that was more an instrument of repression.” As successful as Trump was in using Twitter to attack his opponents in 2016, he has to take a backseat to the way it is being used in Saudi Arabia to create a “Black List” of MBS critics and to track and attack them with an army of fake accounts, barrage of threats and sometimes imprisonment.
The popular phrase in Saudi Arabia for the Twitter bot mobs is an “army of flies,” only these can prove deadly to those on the “Black List," with some singled out for torture and other forms of physical harm. Nor am I using the term “deadly” metaphorically.
This is a chilling report on a monstrous young leader who has been sold to much of the world as a charismatic and even progressive figure. Wait until you see the great video and photos of the coast-to-coast PR tour he took in the U.S. in 2018 starting with a big White House launch from Trump and then going straight through to the embrace of the titans of Silicon Valley and Hollywood who all wanted to get some of those Saudi dollars. Check out all the cultural leaders shown smiling and shaking hands with MBS.
One of my favorite visual moments shows a huge crowd of young Saudis dancing and singing. It is the kind of visual I have seen used to promote the prince as progressive for allowing such displays of music and dance in Saudi life. Except what they are singing is, “MBS, MBS, MBS.” Call it mass indoctrination, a Trump rally on steroids with lots of dancing.
The superb editing of those carefully gathered visuals and interviews is one of the reasons this two hour film moves so fast. And I mean fast by non-fiction standards. After a day of tracking Trump’s helter-skelter behavior on cable TV, I sat down wondering if i had two hours of watching another lying, dangerous politician in me. But it felt like “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia” went by faster than my favorite one-hour Netflix drama. And I wanted more.
Beyond the deep research, rich archive imagery and deft editing, one of the other things that makes this investigation so compelling to watch is the presence of veteran journalist Martin Smith as correspondent. I understand how all TV personas, even for journalists, are constructions. I get that.
But, to me, Smith has become a kind of onscreen ideal of the best of TV journalism, relentlessly searching for answers, stalking the truth, asking tough questions without a touch of showboating or hotdog in any of his work. In TV terms, he’s the hard-eyed, no-nonsense lawman in a TV western or the detective in a TV cop show focused simply on delivering justice.
Smith’s persistence does pay off in the documentary with an interview with MBS. You can judge for yourself how much you trust the words of such a man. To me, the interview is not what matters in this report.
While the ultimate timeliness of “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia” is primarily in the way it helps us remember and reflect on the monstrous and evil act committed against Khashoggi a year ago, it is further made relevant this week in the wake of remarks by Trump and A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times.
Sulzberger in a talk given at Brown University and published as an op-edit piece in the Times, chronicles with real-life examples how dangerous life has become for correspondents abroad during the Trump administration. Read it and be chilled at the administration’s callous indifference to a Times request for help with a correspondent in danger.
Then read the Los Angeles Times report of Trump on Thursday calling reporters “scum," “animals” and some of the “worst people you will ever meet." He leveled the attack at a private breakfast for diplomatic officials.
Don’t miss “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” Understand, thanks to the great and daring work of Frontline, how real the threat to free speech and a free flow of information is not just in Saudi Arabia, but also here at home.
And that’s all the more timely give Sulzberger’s speech this past week