'Frontline's' Literate Voice
David Fanning has guided the show over its 10 years
WASHINGTON — DAVID FANNING, the founding father of "Frontline," was rapping with the press about this year's 10th anniversary season of the riveting documentary series.Mr. Fanning, the series creator and executive producer for Boston's WGBH, talked to reporters over crab cakes and string beans almondine at a National Press Club luncheon about this season's stunners. The premiere documentary is "In The Shadow of Sakharov," 90 minutes on the man who began the Soviet democracy movement. It runs Oct. 15 and like most "Frontline" programs, airs at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night over the Public Broadcasting System. David Fanning also shared a few of the secrets of the series whic h has won dozens of prestigious TV awards, including 13 Emmys, 8 Alfred I. du Pont Columbia Awards, three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the George Polk Award. The secret, says Fanning, is that each program speaks with a single voice, that of a single author. He cites writer William Greider, who is working on next spring's documentary "The State of Democracy," based on reporting from his forthcoming book. "Or we could call it 'The Grand Bazaar: Democracy for Sale" says Fanning. "It will be two evenings of hard, tough reporting on the nature of government and the wide gap between the governors and governed. The third part will be a town meeting and interview seg ment." Mr. Greider was correspondent for "The Disillusionment of David Stockman," former budget director, and for several other "Frontlines": "Retreat from Beirut,Taxes Behind Closed Doors," and "War on Nicaragua." Greider is one of several celebrated writers and reporters who have given "Frontline" a literate voice. They include Gary Wills, Bill Moyers, Seymour Hersh, Hedrick Smith, Roger Wilkins, Shelby Steele, Hodding Carter, its former anchor Judy Woodruff, and James Reston Jr. "Maxwell Perkins is who you want to be," says Fanning, talking of the legendary editor of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and other great writers. "The editor encouraging authors to do the best work they could do." And he adds, "We're doing television for the highest common denominator. People respect intelligence [they're saying], 'treat me as a smart person.' This may be didactic to say: 'Let's pitch it at the level of Harper's or the New York Review of Books. This charismatic producer with auburn curls, teletype delivery, and electric blue eyes knows how to hold an audience in person or on film. He has a certain "and then! ... and then!" breathless quality as he talks about several of the 28 new documentaries for the new season: "The Great American Bailout," with correspondent Robert Krulwich exposing alleged mismanagement of the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency charged with managing the S&L bailout that aired previously; Writer Jack Newfield does a biography of boxing promoter Don King that will air Oct. 29; "The War We Left Behind," with producers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn reporting on the bombing campaign that ravaged Iraqi citizens and their towns airs Nov. 5; and "My Doctor, My Loves," focusing on "the devastating damage caused by patient-therapist sexual relationships" airs Nov. 12. Another "Frontline," on "The Resurrection of Reverend Moon," has no air date yet. And David Fanning also has on the back burner shows on: a Castro biography; "Losing the War with Japan," about the Japanese lobby; as well as a follow-up on a North Carolina child abuse trial ("Innocence Lost") which "Frontline" took a look at last season, this one done in collaboration with Courtroom TV. David Fanning says his favorite "Frontline" programs now are "Innocence Lost" and "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," Bill Moyers's searing indictment of the Iran-Contra scandal. The best ones, he says, are those "with the quality of a storytelling voice." "Frontline" sizzles with controversy, sometimes anticipates the news, so viewers may wonder why there are so few documentaries like it on network TV. It is in a sense like a lost art form, one which the networks abandoned - NBC's "White Paper,CBS Reports,ABC News Close-up" are as dead as "Bonanza." In their place are programs, he says, which are news magazines mixing journalism with entertainment for higher ratings. "Frontline" has marched intrepidly through the past nine years, dodging flack to hold aloft the banner of broadcast journalism the networks have dropped. It does it so well, with PBS affiliates' support, that 5 to 7 million people watch it Tuesday nights. As Fanning says wistfully, "I hope we have more competition."