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Television & Radio | ON TV / PAUL BROWNFIELD

Covering the battle inside the Beltway

February 13, 2007|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

YOU get the overall impression of a lot of guys in ties -- some of them Bush administration officials, some of them journalists and some lawyers -- in the four-part "Frontline" series "News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin," beginning tonight on PBS.

That everybody appears, in close-up, to belong to the same 9 o'clock dinner reservation is a controlling metaphor for what emerges, in the first hour, anyway, as a Washington potboiler among various corridors of power. None of which served the public as the Bush administration readied the nation for war with tales of Saddam Hussein's nefarious plans for another 9/11, using the institutions of the mainstream press as a mouthpiece. The "Frontline" series is what newspapers call a "special project" (or at least those few newspapers still staffed to conduct them, or willing to devote the real estate). A special project is supposed to sprawl, re-creating the tick-tock of a seminal event or subject by way of teasing out the larger implications for the culture.

On "News War," that subject is the harassed and reputation-scarred Fourth Estate. In subsequent weeks, it will delve into what sounds more quotidian -- Wall Street's encroachment on the newspaper industry (focusing on the internal tussle between Tribune Co. and top editors at the Los Angeles Times) amid other talked-over points: the good-bad influence of the blogosphere and the devolution of broadcast news as seen through ABC's exiling of Ted Koppel.

If things go according to plan, you should feel a little sick by March 27, the air date for Part 4. Part 1 begins at the beginning, which is to say the run-up to war in Iraq and the Bush administration's concomitant distaste for reporters (because they always want to know stuff).

This is "Frontline," so no surprise that we're dropped like a lobster into a boiling conspiracy -- the Bushies using hallowed news operations like the New York Times to promote bogus intelligence on Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, thus creating what Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls "an echo effect."

The lead reporter on "News War" is "Frontline's" Lowell Bergman, and he's sneaky marvelous. Bergman's take-down of big tobacco when he was a producer for "60 Minutes" was made into a great whistle-blower caper, Michael Mann's "The Insider," with Al Pacino in the Bergman role.

Watching the actual Bergman on "News War," you get to see what it looks like -- a reporter on TV actually responding, listening and extemporizing. The Valerie Plame leak business, for instance, was messy and incremental in real time, and still is largely an inside-the-Beltway affair. On Sunday's "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert returned from two days of testifying that he wasn't I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's source on the outing of Plame as a CIA operative, only to bury the topic on his own show, after the House resolution on the Iraq war thingie and Obama for president.

Bergman, amid this incremental faucet-drip, teases out the murky commingling of journalistic virtue and damage to the press' reputation that the Plame affair represents. He tends to let subjects go on before coming in with a poking rejoinder, like a TV detective you'd love.

"The underlying principle that we try to protect our sources, including against subpoenas before grand juries, is a good principle," says New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller of his paper's awkward embrace of its fallen lead reporter on WMDs, Judith Miller, whom the paper supported when she refused to testify during Plame-gate. "But it's a very, very hard one to explain to -- to the general public, given both the problematic nature of the reporter and the problematic nature of the leak. I think everybody wished that it was a cleaner case."

"But do you ever really get to choose?" Bergman asks.

Miller sits down with Bergman (they're both former New York Times folk) and doesn't do much to quell the schadenfreude over her downfall ("News War" is scrupulously dry this way -- a refusal to delve into personality). "They gave me information that I believe they believed," she tells Bergman about her WMD reporting. "It was information that was given to the president.... I think -- I believed that -- that they wouldn't give the president false information."

Keller chalks it up in part to a reporter's natural instinct for a front-page scoop. Bob Woodward scolds Miller's attempt to hide behind her sources before conceding that he too publicly promoted the WMD idea. Beware what you say on "Larry King Live." Forty-eight hours before the invasion, the Washington Post's veteran Pentagon reporter, Walter Pincus, wrote a story headlined "Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq," but he couldn't get the piece anywhere nearer the front page than A13.

There are plenty of mea culpas to go around, which generally explains why news organizations made themselves available for transparency while top Bush administration officials were otherwise unavailable for face time with Bergman. If the press fails the public in hour one, it picks up the pieces in hour two, holding the administration's feet to the fire with a bunch of gotchas -- on secret CIA detention facilities and the unlawful wiretapping of Americans' phone calls overseas.

None of this ground is new, but it is good news analysis -- deep into the second term of an administration that has provocatively, aggressively attempted to desensitize the public's understanding of the role of a free press. Yeah, it's inside baseball at a certain point, but a nation's pastime nonetheless.

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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'Frontline -- News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin (Part 1)'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: Not Rated

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