In a year of monumental, complex and challenging stories, no TV journalism outlet has done a more in-depth and responsible job of covering them than “Frontline” on PBS.
The franchise has long been a towering presence in the world of documentary programming on television, but in recent years, it has taken on a keener off-the-news and current affairs edge as it embraced the digital age with podcasts, interactive productions and videos streaming on its YouTube channel. “Frontline” has always operated with a heightened sense of social consciousness, but as the nation became more polarized and disparities between rich and poor grew in the last four years, the series has become even more important as a social conscience for public television and American society. No one has to remind “Frontline” of the journalistic precept of giving voice to the voiceless. And because it is on public television, you don’t have to pay a premium fee to see it.
From “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” which looked at how the lives of agricultural workers in California are profoundly affected by the virus, to “The Virus: What Went Wrong?”that chronicled government mismanagement of the crisis, the series produced eight documentaries related to the pandemic this year. “Policing the Police 2020,” with New Yorker correspondent Jelani Cobb, revisited during this summer of racial reckoning the landmark look at law enforcement in urban America that he and “Frontline” did in 2016. “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos” went inside that corporation and its treatment of workers. “Growing Up Poor in America” offered a heartbreaking look at what it’s like being a child of poverty in this year of the pandemic. And, as always, politics was front and center with such outstanding films as “The Choice 2020,” “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump,” “United States of Conspiracy” and “Whose Vote Counts?”
The person behind this powerhouse public television franchise is Raney Aronson-Rath, the 50-year-old executive producer, who is completing her fifth year at the helm of the series. She talked with The Sun about her goals for the franchise and how “Frontline” is adapting to the tremendous changes in journalism and media.
What are some of your highlights from 2020?
ARONSON-RATH: Certainly, “Frontline” has been really focused on the biggest stories of the year, and the biggest one, of course, is the coronavirus that we really leaned into covering from multiple different angles. But our focus has been on those who have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus. So, we really spent a lot of time looking at, for example, the workers in northern California in “COVID’s Hidden Toll.” We looked at it from so many different perspectives. We launched a really successful podcast in the middle of the summer as well as where we looked at it … with an emphasis on the stories we thought were not being told.
I think for “Frontline” the center of what we do is always accountability journalism. So, even if you see our films changing, if you see our cinematography changing, or you see us doing different formats, if you ask yourself what we do, it’s always journalism with a capital J, investigative journalism.
What I really spent a lot of time thinking about this year is how do we investigate not just our government and policies, but also corporations. So, the other really big highlight of the year for me was our Amazon film. … That film really told the story of how Amazon has grown, but also held all the top people to account … I think the work that’s also really important is the work we did around conspiracy theories and the president’s inclination to share conspiracy theories. One of the biggest concerns for us is how do you hold our government to account when we are dealing with issues of conspiracy theories without fueling conspiracy theories. This is one of the most complex, important pieces of work we did this year … Disinformation and misinformation is something I care deeply about … We always decided at “Frontline” that would be a big part of our reporting.
“Frontline” seems especially focused on how important accurate information is to democracy.
ARONSON-RATH: I always like to say at “Frontline” that corruption doesn’t show its face. So, corruption can run wild if there aren’t journalists on the case. And we take that really seriously … That’s actually what drives us. It drives us when we’re looking at farmworkers and the disproportionate (COVID-19) impact on them when they’re picking the food that we eat. We’re looking at that when we’re holding the Trump administration to account for essentially spreading but also being part of the conspiracy theories that we’re now seeing and that a lot of Americans believe.
And it’s also central to our ”Frontline” Transparency Project, which is a really big shift that we made a couple of years ago to what I like to call “radical transparency.” There’s a long tradition of this at “Frontline” with text interviews. But the idea for the transparency project is that we would allow you to see our interviews that are unedited. Of course, we edit them for accuracy and libel issues. But you’re welcome to see what are full interviews so that you can decide if we were fair in our documentaries. You’d be surprised, millions of people actually go into our interviews, the actual full interviews, sometimes they last for two or three hours for some of our big sit-down interviews. And people explore them, they comment on them, they share them … Technology basically caught up with the idea, which is to say our video is now shareable.
People who want to discredit mainstream TV journalism often say, “it’s edited,” or “it’s been taken out of context.”
ARONSON-RATH: Exactly. That was always the idea at “Frontline”; that we support the journalism process. We support the decisions we made as editors … So, we welcome the exchange around our journalism, because we want you to trust us. This is something I have really dedicated myself to.
And the other big, I guess you would say, shift at “Frontline” involves people increasingly not watching television as it airs. The cord-cutting generation, right? So, we’ve also looked aggressively at where we can find our new audiences. And one place is YouTube. So, since January, we’ve been sharing all of our documentaries on YouTube … And our Amazon film had 7.8 million views of YouTube alone … Young people can tell when something’s authentic … And they’re hungry for it. So, we met them on their platform. And we now have almost 750,000 subscribers … What I find deeply encouraging is that our average person watching our documentaries on our YouTube channel is under the age of 34 … And it doesn’t cannibalize the PBS prime-time audience, which is a bit older. We’re finding a new audience … And ultimately they’re learning about our democracy right now. They’re learning about these issues that matter so much. And they’re getting it without a spin.
The other really big piece for me has been to make sure that our producing corps, the people who produce and direct with us and for us, more represent America. Probably my biggest emphasis in the last three years has been working on diversifying who tells “Frontline” stories. And you can see it. You’ve written about these films. Who is on camera? Who’s behind the camera. Who is the director? … And this runs through the filmmaking corps, the digital work and podcasting, too … The thing I am probably most dedicated to right now is making sure we are authentic to who and what America is and we make sure that the people who are watching us are reflected on camera and are also reflected as the decision makers behind the camera, because the directors are the ones who get to chose where the camera is pointed.
Five years in, that’s what is most exciting: I can see a lot of the work that we started, that we embraced and made a big strategic push around, we are now seeing the change.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.