If the famous Edward R. Murrow/Fred Friendly documentary about Senator Joseph McCarthy had been merely a 10- or 12-minute segment of a newsmagazine show, the Wisconsin “Commie-hunter” today might rival Strom Thurmond as the oldest member of the U.S. Senate. Instead, that one-hour McCarthy exposé is credited by historians with helping put the nail in the political coffin of a man, and the era named after him, for his demagogic ways. It is a great example of the adage about an informed citizenry being necessary for democracy to work.

I found the McCarthy investigation so powerful when I first saw it back in the 1950’s that I swore to myself I would do everything I could to become a Murrow/Friendly documentary producer. In my youthful fervor I had no doubt I was destined to become part of their team. It took 10 years for my dream to become reality.

I believed then, and still do, that the best of those CBS documentary hours exemplified one of the most important ways of alerting people to the vital issues and realities of their time. I remain convinced that a major responsibility of broadcast journalism is to present this kind of documentary programming, especially in today’s increasingly complex world.

Of course, that McCarthy program was telecast when there were only three or four channels to choose among. With fewer television choices it was a lot easier to get the nation’s attention. Today, with the explosion of communications technologies, media mergers, specialized cable outlets, and the growing role of the Internet, it is virtually impossible to expect Americans to sit up and take national notice of almost anything except scandal.

The media masters who control broadcast journalism are failing in their incredibly important responsibility of informing the American people about major issues in meaningful ways. It clearly is more essential for Americans to learn about and understand tough, complex realities than to be dumbed down to with a million pieces of commercially profitable trivia that fill the airwaves.

As a broadcast journalist, I love the challenge of “connecting the dots” so that the big picture is revealed and the audience can gain greater insights into what is a prime mission of journalism: to report on how important institutions really work—and why. That’s become my mission, as well.

The first two-hour documentary on PBS’s “Nova” was my “A Plague on Our Children.” It was about toxic wastes like dioxin and PCB’s, how they are created and how communities around the country (Love Canal et al.) were trying to deal with these poisons. The program raised so many industry hackles that a Wall Street Journal editorial questioned my patriotism. This effort to inform, explain and question what was happening and why won a duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism award.

Similar documentary efforts I’ve made tackled other perplexing problems and did so in ways that revealed the complexities of both the actions and potential consequences.

  • A two-hour PBS independent special, “Can Tropical Rainforests be Saved?” traced the complicated causes and effects of what it means to try to save these extraordinary forests.
  • A 90-minute PBS presentation, “Hungry for Profit,” peered into global agribusiness and how it affects farmers, consumers and the land in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
  • “Do Not Enter: the Visa War Against Ideas” explored the McCarran Walter Act’s denial of U.S. visas on political grounds to a variety of individuals in many countries.
  • “For Export Only” investigated the export to the developing world of pesticides and pharmaceuticals that are banned for use in our part of the world. It also won a duPont-Columbia award.

Each of these documentaries began with a central premise: a belief there is journalistic value in “thinking globally” and comprehensively demonstrating how people are affected and act in these kinds of situations.

Today there probably is no better way to reach a large audience with vital information than with Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, Leslie Stahl, and the rest of that venerable “60 Minutes” news team. They represent present-day broadcast journalism at its best. But I am certain that each of them—and Andy Rooney—would acknowledge that the format they employ is not the only way, or even the best way, to deal with some issues. At times, it seems, they are trapped in a style of reporting that exploits who they are more than it reveals the subjects they cover. Show business has always been an element of broadcast journalism and, while it probably always will be, there are other valid and valuable ways to deal with what journalism should be about, ways that have gotten lost in the quest for ratings and profits.

The world is not getting simpler to understand, but most of those who control what is reported are not interested in complexity. The reason: To make what is complicated able to be understood, and potentially acted upon, eats up valuable airtime. There are incredibly important issues, such as the debates about global warming, or ethical dilemmas such as stem cell research, that deserve major attention and are ill-suited for today’s shorter news magazine segment, a format designed to incite rather than provide insight. The result: Virtually all of today’s broadcast journalists either completely ignore in-depth stories on such issues or touch on only a peripheral or sensational angle.

There are all kinds of prime-time television shows today that cover snippets of reality, and the commercial success of “60 Minutes” or its many clones, ranging from their own “60 Minutes II” to “Dateline” to “Inside Edition,” can’t be ignored. But too often their “investigations” are little more than “featurettes.” What the long-form, prime-time documentary offers is the unique opportunity to weave together facts and present patterns of activity—in short, to create an understandable context—that simply cannot be as reliably constructed or communicated in briefer segments. The public deserves and needs to know more than they can learn in isolated presentations of news.

To take one example, there is a little known and often hidden history connected to what the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO) have been doing, good or bad, and their actions that affect billions of people. Since November 1999, more than 50 protests about their policies have taken place in more than 15 countries with well over one million people protesting those policies. They’re not all loonies or radical anarchists as one might conclude from watching snippets of broadcast reporting, in which demonstrators are seen breaking down fences and the police are seen responding. These pictures and sound bites have been squeezed into 60-second or shorter news reports, one demonstration at a time, wherever in the world it has happened.

Is this good enough? Do these reports help viewers understand what the real issues are that these people are protesting? Do they tell us who is behind the protests and what links protesting groups in different countries? And what do these protests mean for Americans? It is increasingly dangerous to claim the American public is not interested in learning more about these global power brokers and their dissenters. And if the public was to begin to understand how these issues fit together, they will have more interest in learning how the World Bank, IMF and WTO policies and practices affect them and other countries and what others are doing about it. When, as citizens, we don’t know how major institutions like these really work—and their powerful effect on the lives of ordinary people—we are unable to play the necessary role of watchdog that our democracy demands.

Focusing on one country, making it representative of the issue, could be an interesting approach, but that ignores a major aspect of the story: The pattern of actions by these financial giants is global in nature and should be understood in global terms. Investigating and documenting that pattern is a journalistic challenge. More than 10 years ago, before the protests, I took on that challenge, but PBS said my documentary had “a bias in favor of the poor” and wouldn’t run it. But that 90-minute documentary, “The Money Lenders,” ran in prime time all over Western Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, and is still being seen at hundreds of universities all over the United States.

Another example: The Bush Administration has been calling for more nuclear power to relieve what they claim is an energy crisis. Since that White House plea, has anyone in television put together a documentary on how nuclear power really works, how “safe” it has been or may be in the future, and what can be done to cope with the radioactive materials that are accumulating? A skilled producer and editor might tackle aspects of this story in a shorter format, but to present this story with a well-rounded and clear account would require, in my view, at least an hour.

In the mid-1970’s, I examined these questions for the PBS “Nova” series, and the manufacturers of nuclear power plants tried to keep my report off the air. One of those manufacturers, General Electric, now owns NBC. For viewers who saw my documentary, “Incident at Browns Ferry,” the disasters a few years later at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl would not have been a surprise.

PBS, the last bastion of the occasional long-form documentary, is torn between airing an occasional gutsy documentary and trying to build audiences. Perhaps there should be two PBS networks. One would be geared toward entertainment and audience ratings, and its profits would fund the other, which would be for ITVS [Independent Television Service] and other independent programs. This would provide a home for the many issues that PBS now will not squeeze into its ratings-driven schedule.

In a nation in which the quality of public education has been arguably declining, there must be more airtime made available for long-form documentaries that focus on the vital issues of our time, regardless of the possible short-term loss in advertising revenue. Only with this kind of responsible reporting can democracy be made to work better for all of us.

Robert Richter is the last producer from the Murrow/Friendly “CBS Reports” unit actively making documentaries, long-form when possible. A former New York Times reporter, his documentaries also have been on NBC, ABC, PBS, TBS and Discovery. Three were duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism award-winners and two received the Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Information about his documentaries can be found at www.richtervideos.com.

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