A report from the media's front line

Published February 11, 2007

I hate to admit it. But far-right Republican pundit/candidate Pat Buchanan best sums up the heart of News War: Secrets, Spin and the Future of News, Frontline's excellent four-part documentary on government's struggle with the modern press that debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on WEDU-Ch. 3.

His take: "The battle between the White House and the national media is a battle over who controls the national agenda."

Ostensibly, Buchanan was talking about his days in the Nixon White House, resurrecting the canard that the press robbed America of its will to fight in Vietnam (I tend to think it was the mounting body bags). But his words also highlight the forces at play in News War.

For journalists who have always believed we were serving as a surrogate for the public, it is jarring to see, at the start of News War's second installment, crowds gathered at the New York Times protesting its decision to publish details of a government spying program.

Correspondent Lowell Bergman draws a potent contrast, juxtaposing coolly erudite New York Times editor Bill Keller insisting that "terrorists tend to assume (government has) extraordinary powers" with an angry, plain-spoken President Bush thundering, "It was a shameful act . . . to disclose this very important program in a time of war." No wonder average people are demanding their right not to know. In this war of images, those who create media accounts every day have forgotten how to tell their own stories.

Bergman, who has worked for both the New York Times and 60 Minutes, offers four hourlong episodes - the others air Feb. 20 and 27 and March 27 - outlining the major challenges facing the modern mainstream news industry, from court-centered efforts to unveil confidential sources to competition from the Internet.

Of the first two installments provided to critics, the best stuff comes in the second. It's focused on the fight over publishing news on subjects the government wants to keep secret, such as the CIA's secret prisons for suspected terrorists and testimony during a grand jury investigation into steroids in baseball.

Bergman's implication: The government is increasingly disregarding an unspoken truce between the press and prosecutors, in which the latter avoided pursuing mainstream journalists for fear of harming press freedoms.

Like many PBS documentaries, News War often feels like the TV version of eating your vegetables: a parade of talking heads with few celebrities or big moments. Those who know these issues will find little new information. But Bergman's effort ultimately proves a startling thesis: The danger facing the modern press has never been higher. And the public may be okay with that.