By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Receiving an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism is the honor of a lifetime. Being featured in “Telling the Truth”-a PBS documentary about the 2007 winners-is icing on the cake for journalists more accustomed to being on the other side of the camera.
The one-hour documentary will air Jan. 18 on PBS stations in Washington D.C., San Francisco and Houston, followed by broadcasts on 13 PBS stations Jan. 22 at 10 p.m. The program will be made available as a podcast Jan. 25.
The documentary, written, directed and produced by New York-based production company RAIN Media, features CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who interviews several winners. RAIN Media founder and director/writer/correspondent Martin Smith, who co-produced “Telling the Truth” with Margarita Dragon, reports that the documentary includes information on all 14 DuPont-Columbia winners-including 12 in television and two for radio.
“In the past few years, they’ve focused on select winners,” said Mr. Smith, whose company produced the 2006 “Telling the Truth.” “This year, we are going to include something about all 14 of the programs-sometimes only a little bit and sometimes quite in depth.”
“I think that there is an opportunity to use the documentary to be a kind of `end of year’ report on journalism,” he said. “By including all of them, you get more scope and you can say more collectively about how journalists are performing.”
Choosing Ms. Amanpour as the presenter and interviewer was key to both the awards ceremony and the documentary. “It was important that the presenter match the quality of the programs that are winning,” said Mr. Smith. “We did talk some months back, before the awards committee even met, about who should do the presenting.” Last year’s awards ceremony presenter was ABC News’ Michel Martin, who also provided an opening to the documentary and narration throughout, but did not interview the winners.
Ms. Amanpour interviewed seven or eight of the winners; Ms. Dragon and Mr. Smith conducted the rest of the interviews. “Some of the winners get full treatment of eight to 10 minutes, and some get a minute or two,” Mr. Martin said. In a handful of cases, no interview accompanies the coverage.
Mr. Martin grouped the winners around themes or subject areas, starting with coverage of Hurricane Katrina, for which NBC’s “Dateline” and “Nightly News” won a joint DuPont Award and two local stations, WWL-TV in New Orleans and WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Miss., also were honored. “It was noted by the jury that NBC News arrived 24 hours before any major broadcasters arrived, stayed with the story and dedicated all those resources,” he said. “Christiane asks Brian Williams whether the press, after several years of not challenging the current administration, found new footing in its coverage of Katrina, and the answer Brian Williams gives is, absolutely.”
That theme continues in the next “act,” Mr. Martin said. That part of the documentary deals with programming related to Iraq, which includes HBO’s “Baghdad ER,” coverage by numerous NPR reporters, and a “California Connected” program, “War Stories from Ward 7-D,” which focuses on U.S. soldiers recovering from traumatic brain injuries suffered in Iraq.
“The conversation that Christiane has with the two producers of `Bagdad ER’ adds a level of the role of journalists and the consequences of witnessing the war,” said Mr. Martin, who added that the Pentagon made a request that the program not be aired. “Whether it’s Katrina or Iraq, these big stories come out of crisis.”
“It felt right to begin with Katrina and Iraq, the two big issues of the time,” he said. “We had six of the winners covering those two stories.”
For the third act, Mr. Smith and Ms. Dragon grouped together four programs dealing with other global issues: “Israel & the Arabs: Elusive Peace,” from Brook Lapping Productions in London; PBS’s “Frontline: The Age of AIDS”; ITVS and “Independent Lens”‘ “Seoul Train,” by Incite Productions; and Discovery Times Television’s “Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?”
The fourth act groups investigative reporting by local station winners, including Cape Cod & Island public radio, which produced “Two Cape Cods: Hidden Poverty on the Capes & the Islands”; WRAL-TV’s Focal Point documentaries “Standards of Living,” about the living conditions of migrant farm workers, and “Paper Thin Promise,” about the ineffectiveness of restraining orders in domestic violence cases; and WBAL-TV’s “Dirty Secret,” about a Baltimore company financed by the state that is a major polluter. The documentary closes with “American Masters”‘ “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.”
“It’s always good to end with music and it’s a wonderful film,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s not investigative journalism or global journalism-it’s cultural history.”
Production of “Telling the Truth” was a quick turnaround. “We got the winners list the first week in November,” Ms. Dragon said. “We did about a week and a half going to New Orleans and Raleigh [N.C.] to see the winners in action. Then we did interviews in New York City the week of Thanksgiving and in London, and also did an interview outside of Denver [for `Seoul Train’].”
All of Ms. Amanpour’s interviews were done in New York and in London [with producer Norma Perry]; Ms. Dragon conducted the rest of the interviews. Mr. Smith and Ms. Dragon shot only a small amount of B-roll.
Much of the territory covered in these reports is familiar to Mr. Smith and Ms. Dragon, since RAIN Media produces programming on these and related issues for “Frontline.”
“But it is still fresh to hear Brian Williams talk about NBC’s efforts,” Mr. Smith said, “and to see people performing at a high level. I am understandably proud to be part of the profession. It’s a joy to see this material and feature these people.”