PBS Frontline: 'News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin'

Raney Aronson, producer of
Raney Aronson, producer of "News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin." (Courtesy PBS Frontline)
Raney Aronson
Wednesday, February 14, 2007; 11:00 AM

Producer Raney Aronson was online Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the first part of the PBS Frontline film "News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin." The film looks at the recent history of American journalism, from the Nixon administration's attacks on the media to the post-Watergate popularity of the press, to new obstacles presented by the war on terror.

Frontline's "News War: Secrets, Sources & Spin" airs Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Raney Aronson has been the producer, director and writer of four full-length Frontline documentaries, "The Last Abortion Clinic," "The Soldier's Heart," "The Jesus Factor" and "The Alternative Fix," as well as three Frontline/World stories based in India and Hong Kong.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: In the Plame affair, some journalists refused to testify, nominally to protect their sources -- but these sources weren't typical whistle blowers who stood to be personally punished if exposed. Rather, the sources were agents of the White House's media manipulation strategy. Their exposure would damage the White House's credibility, and, by extension, the journalists' for failing to maintain the skepticism that we expect of a responsible journalist. That said, shouldn't it be incumbent on the press establishment to consider a source's motives when determining how far to go in protecting them? They say they are protecting the integrity of the press; what they're really protecting is the credibility of their crooked byline.

Raney Aronson: This is a terrific question and brings up one of the biggest issues in our film -- everyone has a different opinion on this. If you ask Judy Miller, she would say that you protect your source no matter what and that all sources are politically motivated -- and that's the principle. Others don't agree ... like Norm Pearlstine for example. He said part of his reason to hand over Matt Cooper's notes in the end was because Cooper's source was not a typical whistleblower. Our Web site has a great conversation on this very issue -- I hope you'll visit it to see what else our interviewees had to say about this.


Newton, Mass.: In this new age of rapid info transmission, blogging, etc., do you think that it is time for journalism to re-assess the traditional rules of engagement when covering an administration? It seems that as you follow the Libby trial or review the run-up to the Iraq war (and what might now be happening with Iran), that it is obvious that the administration has taken advantage of "source development," anonymous sources, the competition for scoops, news cycles, while at the same time using intimidation against those who question or criticize its motives. With this playbook established, how can journalists hold credibility with the public in the future?

Raney Aronson: I think you're right -- journalists have a long way to go to regain the public's trust after the reporting in the run up to the war in Iraq. That said, many of the newspapers have changed their policies regarding when and how to use anonymous sources in their stories -- which is a good thing. I think in general the Valerie Plame affair showed the underbelly of this cozy relationship between those reporting on Washington and those in power in Washington. Tom Rosenstiel -- the director of the Project in Excellence in Journalism talks about this in our films at length (and our Web site as well).


Nashville, Tenn.: How hard is it to do a piece on the news like this when there are so many preconceived notions about the news, the administration, the Plame investigation, etc.? A quick glance at the "Join the Discussion" Frontline page shows people taking the first part of the series and shoehorning what they have seen into all sorts of different stories. You are accused of being "cozy" to the administration, only to be accused then of being out to get them. How do you as a producer of such news stories take heart in producing them seeing as how so few people seem interested in taking your story at its word for one reason or another? How much of your audience do you suppose is giving your story a reasonable hearing?

Raney Aronson: This was a huge discussion at Frontline when we launched this series -- how do we do a film series about the news media with so many conflicts of interest -- and like you said, so many preconceived notions about the news, the administration and the Plame Affair. I'll be the first to say it was not easy -- it was one of the hardest areas I've ever reported on -- and getting people to be frank on camera about our industry was difficult as well. It was tough ... in the end we decided to do our best to unpack the Plame affair and its unintended consequences -- in other words what you might not know about if you just watched the nightly news or cable news. I also use myself as the test when I report on any issue -- if I'm surprised by something, then I have to assume some in our audience will be as well and it's a story worth telling.


Snowed In, Md.: Does the addition of Tony Snow as Press Secretary add to or hurt the image of the press and the administration? Is it an issue of trying to "manipulate the press" with "one of them" or acknowledging the power of the press by hiring a former professional journalist?

Raney Aronson: I wish we had time to look at that very question in our series. My feeling is that the addition of Tony Snow signaled to the media that the Bush administration was changing their tactic with how to handle and deal with the press. Snow was hired at a time when the President's approval ratings were going downhill and many experts said at the time that it was part of the "new face" they were putting forth to the American public.


Germantown, Md.: Bob Woodward -- perhaps the most eminent American journalist -- was shown in the program last night saying "there was a zero percent chance that there are no WMDs in Iraq." The MSM journalists like Woodward were so taken in by the Administration that they lost their independence and judgment -- perhaps forever. "State of Denial" was a good effort at atonement but it is not enough. MSM are still far too cozy with the Bush administration, and still too easily taken in by the spin, the lies and the deception. What is needed is a fearless pursuit of truth, and I'm sorry but I just don't see it. I turn to the foreign press for more news -- they face many of the same issues, but they're doing a better job.

Raney Aronson: Certainly many people feel the same way as you do -- what we tried to do in this film was understand why the mainstream media got it so wrong, and why when there were reporters uncovering that the intelligence on WMD in Iraq was flawed that they weren't being heard or were being buried in their papers. I don't think there's an easy answer about how the press comes back after a failure like that -- but as Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times said to us, everyone thought there was WMD in Iraq, it was not an eccentric view or right-wing view. And unfortunately the press (in times of war) has a bad track record of calling the government out on faulty or not-rock-solid intelligence.


New York: I was fascinated by your show last night. I was incensed after watching the segment where the Bush Administration would leak something to the press (for example The New York Times) then when the leaked information was headlined in the paper, Cheney or somebody else from the administration would go on Meet the Press (or an equivalent show) and use the news article to justify their position ("see, the NYT says blah blah blah"). My anger is geared more towards the newspapers who allowed this to happen. Didn't they realize they were being used? Or was getting the "scoop" more important?

Raney Aronson: A lot of people responded like you did to that scene. I think at the time the reporters inside these elite newspapers and their editors did not know what was happening, or it certainly would not have unfolded as it did.


Washington Post: Why do we continue to listen to Bob Woodward offer his opinion of the war when he was so wrong on WMD? And conversely, why aren't the Knight-Ridder reporters (the one's who the got WMD story right) given more credibility and exposure?

Raney Aronson: I wish we had more time to explore this issue in our film. I felt like we could have done an entire film on what happened in the run up to the war in Iraq. On the point about the Knight-Ridder reporters -- what Tom Rosenstiel (the PEJ director) told us was that because these reporters weren't writing for the New York Times or the Washington Post they simply didn't get the attention at the time that they should have. As Clark Hoyt (the editor at the time at Knight Ridder) told us: if they had gotten the attention they deserved perhaps there would have been a very different debate in America during the run up to the war in Iraq.


Rolla, Mo.: Thank you for your excellent work. Can you address whether you observed a level of defensiveness among journalists since the rise of the blogosphere serving as a check on their work? While the blogs can go over the top at times, there are those of us out here who appreciate that other sources fact-checking and compiling information on a particular article or report in the MSM. We did not have this during the Monica Lewinsky days and the 2000 recount, and it was in its infancy in the runup to the Iraq War.

Raney Aronson: Sure, I think that journalists inside big news organizations feel attacked from all sides -- so the blogosphere is definitely part of that. In Part three of this series producer Steve Talbot and Lowell Bergman explore this new world -- and what it means to mainstream journalism. You can also look on our Web site for more information on this very issue. Thanks!


Alexandria, Va.: The "News War" segment last night had my wife and I utterly captivated and disgusted at the same time -- captivated by the excellent reporting and interviews, disgusted by the attitude of Judith Miller. Do many other journalists share her attitude that anonymous slander or lies from politicians equal "important news"? Isn't there supposed to be some sort of filter or judgment put into play somewhere along the line?

Raney Aronson: I'm so glad you watched. I do think that many people were aggravated with Judy Miller's defensiveness that her sources were wrong, so then so was she. As you can see, someone like Bob Woodward disagrees -- and so do many others we interviewed. As to your s
econd question -- there is absolutely supposed to be a serious judgment that plays into every decision when using anonymous or confidential sources. Editors and Executive Producers should be grilling their reporters to make sure their sources are above-board -- as should the journalists themselves.


Alexandria, Va.: I loved the show last night. I look forward to the remaining elements. Your show touched on something that I've been wondering about for a long time and which I think is extremely important. You discussed the evolution of confidential sources from the early "whistleblower" types to today's constant and often unnecessary use by government types to "put out" info/their side of the story/impugn someone etc. It has struck me for a long time that the media developed a process a long time ago and everyone has become "media savvy" and knows how to use that process to their ends. Yet, the media does nothing differently. They continue down this path as if it was the only way to "journalistic truth". Why hasn't someone figured out a different way to tell the public what is happening? Doesn't it rankle them that they're being used constantly and not in the service of truth?

Raney Aronson: Well, I think that was at the heart of what Lowell Bergman cared about when reporting on this issue. It definitely is true that journalists get played -- but then it's also true that the use of confidential sources are essential to our profession. John Miller (former journalist and now with the FBI) said something that struck a cord with me, basically that because Branzburg has been reaffirmed, if a federal grand jury in good faith asks a reporter for his/her sources a new conversation needs to start happening between reporters and their sources. In other words he argues that the bar for granting confidentiality should be higher -- and I absolutely agree with this assessment. For his interview go to our Web site.


Pittsburgh: Do you think it will now be harder for journalists to protect the identities of whistleblowers?

Raney Aronson: Yes, we argue in our film that when it comes to a situation where a federal grand jury asks for a journalist to divulge their sources in good faith that journalists will need to, or go to jail. So yes -- one of the unintended consequences of the Plame Affair is that the floodgates were opened and now it will be harder for journalists to protect their sources.


Irvine, Calif.: The historical perspective really added an important dimension to yesterday's fine show. In particular, I learned for the first time that taking the Plame case to court may have been ill-advised in prematurely forcing on bad facts a 30-year legal strategy to recover from the Black Panther precedent. Is the prevailing legal view that it's "game over" now for a reporter privilege?

Raney Aronson: I also was surprised to learn this history -- which is embarrassing because I have a Masters in Journalism! To answer your question -- yes, I do think that prevailing legal view is that if a federal grand jury asks a reporter to divulge their sources in good faith that a reporter will need to do so or face contempt of court.


Brinklow, Md.: I was always taught in journalism school that quotes should be identified and I long have been opposed to the practice of using unidentified quotes from "high-ranking officials" or "well-placed administration sources" in news stories. The use of unidentified quotes should be limited only to true whistleblowers who need their identities protected from reprisal. Is there any possibility of returning to the previous ethics of reporting only identified quotes?

Raney Aronson: I think that with new legal problems that more and more newspaper editors and television executives are rethinking the use of confidential sources. I think how you define who gets protection is not an easy one -- in other words your definition of a whistleblower may be different from someone else's. That said, I do think a new conversation should happen -- and it is starting to happen inside these big news organizations that rely on confidential sources too heavily.


Havertown, Pa.: There has been much discussion about "citizen journalism" and the projected future importance of citizens, rather than trained journalists, covering events around them. How will this effect the press coverage of our federal government?

Raney Aronson: This is a terrific question -- and is part of Hour 3 in our series. I hope you can stay tuned for that (Feb. 27) and ask the producer the next day on this chat if your question isn't properly answered!


Nashville, Tenn.: The Baker commission was accused of talking only to generals and not seeking out the wisdom of grunts. When you are producing a series, do you ever post notice soliciting comments from the general public to consider incorporating in the material? For example, while William Safire has excellent credentials on the right of privacy, you might have stumbled upon a Vietnam veteran who enlisted expressly to fight the spread of privacy excesses of Joseph Stalin, spying on anyone and everyone, which enabled him to carry out the Great Purge. Such a veteran would likely feel betrayed by the policies now being carried out by his government, despite their good intentions.

Raney Aronson: I appreciate your comment. I think when we make decisions about who to include or not we always leave out some who would make a really terrific addition to our film, or the questions we ask.


Austin, Texas: Great story. I'm curious how long it takes to produce a show like last night's Frontline segment of the media. Also, will any of the future segments in this series compare the U.S. press with that of other countries (quality of the reporting, their relationships to their governments)? Thanks!

Raney Aronson: Well ... this one took longer than most for a number of reasons -- usually we spend about 8 months on an hour-long film. This series took more than a year to produce -- our forth hour of the series airing in March looks at the global media environment, and you can check out our Web sitefor more details. You even can sign up to be alerted ahead of time with a reminder that the show is coming on!


Atlanta: It appears reporters want to protect their sources in order to protect their wallets -- it's like an industry within an industry. As we see how difficult it is for politicians to police themselves how can we expect the media to police themselves?

Raney Aronson: Well, I think it's difficult -- but I do think we need to expect the media to have high standards and to police themselves, otherwise it would mean the government policing the media, which would be a problem as well. It's not a perfect situation -- as was evidenced in the run up to the war in Iraq.


Arlington, Va.: This program sounds fascinating. Do you know whether it will be available on DVD or through iTunes for those of us who don't have access to PBS otherwise? Thanks.

Raney Aronson: Yes, most certainly -- you can go to our Web site to buy a DVD of the program, or you can watch it online.


Salt Lake City: Raney, what a terrific program. My wife and I watched the program together talking about key issues. What can be done, if anything, to limit the impact of the actions of a few on trusting consumers of the media?

Raney Aronson: I'm so glad you liked the show. I think what you ask is a terrible conundrum. It's often the really egregious acts by a small number of people who get the most attention -- people who plagiarize and such, and I'm not sure how to fix that issue -- because it is very important those people are exposed. But the media goes overboard in spinning out those stories endlessly.


Minneapolis: Later in the series, do you review the history of journalism in the United States? It seems we have this ideal of journalism that, historically, has not been the norm. As a public, we need to question the journalists to keep the journalists questioning ... we seem to have taken a back seat and only blame the journalists for being lazy, not ourselves.

Raney Aronson: In every film we tell a bit of history -- there's so much to tell that it's hard to handle is a four-part series. We wished we had time for more. That said, our extended interviews are on our Web site -- many of those interviews give context and history to the events we describe in our films...


Washington: Many fields require another body to watchdog and/or certify organizations (e.g., in manufacturing, plants must be ISO certified). Is there or should there be something akin to this in journalism? In other words, journalists are supposed to be watchdogs -- who are their watchdogs?

Raney Aronson: Great question, and the answer is that there is no official watchdog -- and I'm not sure who would be that watchdog. If you look at the landscape of media now, there are bloggers and others watching the media who have a stronger voice (like you saw with the Rathergate story exposed by the blog Powerline). Some believe this is a great corrective -- in other words, now the mainstream media is called out when they get things wrong, or at least not quite right.


South Bend, Ind.: Do you worry that people have much more access to news, media and viewpoints that support the views and beliefs they already hold?

Raney Aronson: Well, studies do show that the more you believe in a particular point of view the more you go to those types of Web sites, news shows or blogs advocating your point of view. My feeling is that there has been a great corrective -- in other words I think it's good that there is so much out there for consumers to choose from, there's something for everyone now. It's just that now people need to choose more carefully and decide who they want to trust when it comes to getting their news.


Rockville, Md.: Part of my job as a federal civil servant is to talk to the media. Many reporters are "regulars" with me and talk to me freely, but I always talk "on the record" and almost never reach out to them first. I understand why higher-ups in the Government would want to reach out to reporters to get out the message they want, but shouldn't reporters be skeptical when it is the government that initiates the contact rather than the reporter?

Raney Aronson: Yes, we argue that reporters definitely should be more skeptical. I commend you for going on the record. Many of the reporters we talked to simply said that they could not find government officials who would go on the record if they were talking freely about what was troubling them...


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