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Frontline, the finest non-fiction series on public television, is back with a new season | COMMENTARY

Frontline opens a new season on PBS Tuesday with a sensitive look at what it's like to be poor child in America today. The documentary relies on the voices of teens to tell much of its powerful story. (Handout from "Growing up Poor" courtesy of Frontline).
Frontline opens a new season on PBS Tuesday with a sensitive look at what it's like to be poor child in America today. The documentary relies on the voices of teens to tell much of its powerful story. (Handout from "Growing up Poor" courtesy of Frontline). (HANDOUT)

In a year when there is essentially no new fall TV season because of COVID-19, it feels like a gift that one of the highest-quality series on PBS is delivering new episodes. Frontline, one of the hardest hitting and most socially conscious non-fiction series in the history of television, launches a new season Tuesday night with “Growing Up Poor in America,” a sensitive and at times heartbreaking look from director Jezza Neumann at what it’s like being a child of poverty in this year of the pandemic and age of a shamefully widening gap between rich and poor.

Frontline’s fierce social conscience, watchdog chops, keen political acumen and investigative passion can be seen throughout its fall lineup. Also on tap is powerful special with New Yorker correspondent Jelani Cobb revisiting the struggle for police reform in urban America with “Policing the Police” on Sept. 15.

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In a 2016 Frontline documentary of the same title, Cobb looked at what it took to try and reform the police department in Newark, New Jersey. As I wrote at the time of its premiere, Cobb got deeper into the politics of urban reform than I have ever seen from any TV production. His reporting went well beyond Newark, speaking to the same issues and problems faced by police departments in Baltimore and other high-crime cities.

In his latest report he looks at policing in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. With a social justice movement demanding an end to the structural racism that has poisoned many police departments, and a president who is cheering on white vigilantes in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon as part of his reelection strategy, it is hard to imagine a more timely report than this one from producers James Jacoby and Anya Bourg, who previously produced “The Facebook Dilemma” for Frontline.

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A touchstone of presidential political media arrives Sept. 22 as Frontline offers its 2020 version of “The Choice,”a political franchise launched in 1988 that looks at the two presidential candidates on the eve of the election. I think I have previewed every one of them since 1992. I like the format of interwoven biographies, and I also love the deep dives Frontline takes into the candidates’ lives and psychologies.

Michael Kirk, who has produced four versions of “The Choice” and won the Peabody and Emmy awards multiple times, is again at the helm. And I can’t wait to see what he does with Trump and Biden this time around.

The producers and directors whose work is seen on Frontline are among the finest documentary filmmakers in television.

Because the films are edited so close to the day they air, the only full film of the new season made available for screening is “Growing Up Poor in America.” While not a final print, it is nevertheless perfectly representative of several of the qualities that make this series so valuable to the media landscape these days.

One of the core principles of journalism, according to the “The Elements of Journalism,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, is to “give voice to the voiceless.” No non-fiction TV series does that more skillfully or often than “Frontline.”

“Growing Up Poor in America” does not have a reporter or narrator serving as a guide to viewers. Instead, filmaker Neumann trusts the camera and the voices of teen members to show and help us feel what it’s like living on the cruel side of the growing economic divide in the nation. The story of three poor families in Ohio is set against a backdrop of COVID-19 and a devastated economy that Neumann never lets viewers forget about.

Giving children voice to tell the story of their families’ lives is a brilliant choice. They have yet to develop the kind of duplicity and internal censors many adults employ when talking to a camera. Their words are straightforward and often unconsciously sad as they baldly state the conditions of their lives.

Thirteen-year-old Shawn lives with his mother and baby sister in a trailer. He has an older brother, but he lives with grandparents because there is not enough room for all four family members in the trailer, according to Shawn.

“This is our first time living in a trailer. The reason we moved into a trailer is because it’s like something that she can afford,” he says referring to his mother.

Shawn’s mother, Crystal, works at a Salvation Army store to qualify for assistance. She explains that she gets $485 a month for the hours she works and another $400 a month in food stamps. She takes out a pocket calculator and multiplies $885 by 12 to show that her family is living on $10,620 a year.

The elementary school Shawn attends was closed because of COVID-19, but word comes that it will be providing laptops for online learning to students who cannot afford them. One of the saddest scenes in the documentary shows Shawn and his mother walking to the school in the rain pushing a stroller carrying his baby sister to get one of the laptops.

Cars carrying parents and students are lined up in front of the school. But Shawn’s mother can’t afford to get her car fixed. So, she tells Shawn to take the stroller and his sister to the side of the parking lot and wait there while she stands in the line of cars. When someone from the school comes out and hands her a laptop, she apologizes for not having a car.

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Later, viewers will see Shawn, his baby sister and older brother in another line of cars at a McDonald’s drive-thru waiting for a free student meal.

The family of 14-year-old Kyah has a car, but no home. Kyah lives with her mother and 18-year-old sister in one room of a house belonging to her mother’s friend. They do not know how long they will be allowed to stay.

“We’ve been homeless basically for a year or something like that,” Kyah says. “We had moved into an apartment, and couldn’t afford it. So, we had to move out. So, we’ve just been living with people.”

Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer of Frontline, says giving voice to people like the children in this film is one of the goals of Frontline. But it is also part of a larger effort to chronicle the inequities in American life today and then ask the tough journalistic questions of government and corporate leaders as to why things are this way.

“The real priority for us in the last number of years is looking at those untold stories as a lens to how you can then press accountability inside of them,” Aronson-Rath said.

Referencing a Frontline documentary that aired this summer about agricultural workers in California and the dangers of COVID-19 to which they are exposed often by lack of basic employer protections, Aronson-Rath said Frontline films are consistently asking, “Why is our country at this point, so unequal? If you look at equity issues across the board right now, that’s what we’re really focused on. Our whole fall is focused on the state of our democracy.”

Given the assaults on democracy at home and from forces abroad this fall, it is a comfort to know Frontline is on that case.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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