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PBS Frontline: 'The Choice 2008'

Jim Gilmore
Reporter and Producer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline reporter and producer Jim Gilmore was online Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 11 a.m. to discuss his film "The Choice 2008," which examines the personal and political biographies of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.

"The Choice 2008" will air Tuesday, Oct. 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Gilmore has been a reporter/co-producer on dozens of Frontline documentaries. The most recent programs he worked on include "Endgame," "Rumsfeld's War," "The Torture Question" and "Bush's War" -- a four-hour in-depth assessment of the war on terror.

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Jim Gilmore: Hello everyone. I'm online, and there are lots of questions waiting. I'll get them as fast as I can.

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Toledo, Ohio: This show confirmed my choice, but also humanized the other candidate in such a way that I could accept him as president. That is a great service.

Jim Gilmore: Many thanks. Our goal was to help our audience better evaluate these candidates by focusing on transformative experiences from their lives as well as everyday experiences from their biographies that we believe help define who these men are and what has motivated, inspired or changed them through the years. It is a program about character, not issues. If you feel like you now understand the candidates better, then we have done our jobs.

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New York: Rather than being "fair and balanced," the documentary seemed extremely subtly bias in favor of McCain. I could give many examples, but the last scenes were indicative -- the narrator attacked Obama for picking Biden, which apparently was antithetical to his message, while making no similar comment about McCain picking Palin, which most would say is much more egregious.

Throughout, I felt that the storyline being pushed was that Obama was merely an ambitious, calculating politician with no inherent ideas or skills, while McCain was the arduous warrior who admirably reconciled with the dredges of the Republican Party. Nothing was made of his shrewd calculations or invented "outsider" maverick image. Frontline is without equal, and PBS in general never has failed to raise the level of discourse, but I honestly feel this documentary was shameful in its bias.

Jim Gilmore: Thanks for your views, but I disagree with some of what you have said. It is next to impossible to produce a program on politics where everyone in the audience is satisfied with what is covered and what is said. Our goal was to set aside the rhetoric and the day-to-day angry barbs being tossed back and forth by the campaigns and look at the biographies of these two men in order to better understand who they are. I do not believe we attacked Obama for his choice of Biden; instead we explain how in fact it was a carefully considered choice. Our intention was to not take a position for or against either candidate, but to present an even-handed view of both.

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Washington: You only showed the poor side of Chicago -- what about the large number of middle- and upper-class blacks and their neighborhoods? This helps reinforce the thinking that all blacks are part of a poorer socioeconomic class.

Jim Gilmore: Many of the shots we used were of the district Sen. Obama represented while in the state senate, and there are quite a few shots of Hyde Park, -- which is in that district, is where Obama lives and is in fact very much an integrated middle-class neighborhood.

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Teaneck, N.J.: I watched the documentary last night and it was amazing how much I learned about these two men. That said, I'm a political junkie and I wonder whether the only people willing to sit through the two hours are nuts like myself. What do you know about the audience for your documentaries? Do you reach undecided voters? I hope you do, because it was thorough and fair and made me feel much better about the choice we face as a nation.

Jim Gilmore: It's a good question, but judging from the input we got after we aired the program, there are a lot of people who are very interested in this election and want to learn more about the men. Thanks for your comments.

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San Antonio: During the show Mark Halperin talked about Obama's poor or working-class background. He was not raised by his mother -- he was raised by his wealthy banker grandmother in Hawaii! Is Halperin biased, or unaware?

Jim Gilmore: From what people told us, Obama lived with his grandparents for a time, but when his mom moved back to Indonesia but they were by no means wealthy. I think Halperin has it right.

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Waldorf, Md.: I enjoyed this program, as I do every four years, but as a McCain backer I felt the opposite of the previous poster from New York -- I thought it had a slight bias toward Sen. Obama. So I guess all is in the eye of the beholder.

Jim Gilmore: I think that is right. We have gotten good and bad comments from both sides, and that often means we got it just about right.

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Frederick, Md.: Fifteen minutes into your show I can see that it's slanted to show Obama in the best light and McCain in the worst. I'm very disappointed, but not really surprised.

Jim Gilmore: I appreciate your point of view, though I do disagree. We interviewed dozens of people who worked closely with the candidates through the years, friends and thoughtful journalists, and many talked about the same events in these men's lives that were transformative. Those are the stories we relate to our audience. They do not always paint the candidate in the best light, but we hope they are accurate and help better define who they are.

By the way, I should mention that if anyone missed the broadcast you can find the entire program at our Web site. On this site you also can find info on how to download the show from iTunes. The program also will be rebroadcast on PBS on the eve of the election, on Nov. 3.

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Prescott, Ariz.: Pretty good effort, but I thought you totally whitewashed Iraq. For instance, where do you get your assertion that "most" of Washington wanted the troops out of Iraq in 2006? If this were the case, there might have been at least one or two votes in the Senate or House record reflecting that. It certainly wasn't reflected in the volume of for vs. against editorials emanating out of Washington.

And while you brought up McCain secret letter to Bush circa 2006, is it not more revealing about McCain's prescience to mention that he was cheerleading the war's great progress right up until the cusp of 2006? For example (from The Hill, Dec. 8, 2005): "I do think that progress is being made in a lot of Iraq. Overall, I think a year from now, we will have made a fair amount of progress if we stay the course. If I thought we weren't making progress, I'd be despondent."

Jim Gilmore: Many of the sources we have talked to in the past when producing films on the war (our team's last project, by the way, was a four-hour film on the war entitled "Bush's War") told us that by 2006, many in Congress, in the Pentagon and even in the administration were searching for a way to move our troops out of Iraq. There is no doubt -- and it is mentioned in the film -- that from the beginning McCain was a major supporter of the war. But it is also true from what many in Washington say that from late 2003 on (after he came back from a visit to Iraq), McCain also was vocal about his problems with how the war was being conducted.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: A quibble: John McCain didn't quit the race right after South Carolina, as you imply, and he gave as good as he got with the dirty tactics, accusing Bush of being "anti-Catholic" and being forced to withdraw dishonest ads. He didn't run as clean a campaign in 2000 as you imply, did he?

Jim Gilmore: It is true McCain did not quit right after South Carolina he pulled out after Super Tuesday, but many told us that after the South Carolina defeat, the wind was taken out of his sails.

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Dripping Springs, Texas: I thought you did a great job of showing each candidate's political character. The show was balanced and informative, which seems impossible in today's political climate. Thank you so much for the great job! Frontline is really one of the best in the documentary arena. How soon will the show be available online? I would like to suggest it to both my conservative and liberal friends.

Jim Gilmore: Many thanks. I believe the show already is up on our Web site.

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Stillwater, Minn.: Was it difficult to get access to the people close to the candidates? Did you draw a line when it came to whom you interviewed, for example the candidate's wives?

Jim Gilmore: Very good question. Access to the people close to the candidates is always key in making a film like this. The short answer to your question is that no, it was not easy. Because we spend a good amount of time in the production of "The Choice" we have enough time to finagle access, but we did ask interviews with Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama and the campaigns never made that happen for us. Sen. McCain's younger brother (whom we also asked to interview but were refused) just yesterday complained that the people running the campaign were not letting the people who knew McCain the best to talk to the media. It is a problem -- but that said, the people we did talk to in the film were in fact remarkable in both their access to the candidates and for being thoughtful spokespersons for them.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey, aren't you running a losing bid for the Senate in Virginia?

Jim Gilmore: I get that a lot. One of my more interesting interview experiences was sitting down with Gov. Gilmore for an interview.

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Chapel Hill, N.C.: Have you had any response from the campaigns since this aired?

Jim Gilmore: Not as of yet.

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Glenside, Pa.: Why were the candidates' upbringing not covered in this years "The Choice," as it has been in past years?

Jim Gilmore: We do talk about their younger years, but it's true that there's less detail than some earlier "Choices." With only two hours for the two men's stories it was decided it would be more important to focus on their adult lives and careers. Also, there are more biographies done on the candidates now then when Frontline began this series, so our audience find those stories elsewhere.

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Fairfax, Va.: Missed the show -- will it re-air in the future?

Jim Gilmore: You can find the program on our Web site -- see the above link -- and it will be rebroadcast on the eve of the election, Nov. 3. You also can download it from iTunes.

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Rockville, Md. :"By the way I should mention if anyone missed the broadcast you can find the entire program at our Web site." I got interrupted halfway through, so I want to finish watching. I am currently undecided. After I watched the first part of your show and the last 20 minutes, I can say that I would be willing to vote for either man, but not for their policies. I think you did a fair job with both. Thanks.

Jim Gilmore: Thanks for your comment and I hope you enjoy the final 20 minutes. It is interesting that there still seem to be a lot of undecideds out there.

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Bflem: Hi Jim. Thanks for answering my question! I'm wondering if there's any chance you will put older editions of "The Choice" online any time soon? I really would love to see them!

Jim Gilmore: I don't believe there are since the shows really are meant to run before the elections. But transcripts and the sites for previous "Choices" are still up on this edition's Web site.

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Jim Gilmore: Many thanks for your questions. My time is up. Sorry if I didn't get to your question ... hopefully next time.

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