Traveling with a camera crew, Thomas Friedman says, is harder than it looks.
From Qatar to Indonesia to Bahrain, the New York Times columnist spent months interviewing Muslims for a cable documentary called "Searching for the Roots of 9/11." And he learned something about the limitations of television.
"One thing about being a columnist is you get to talk to a lot of people off the record because you don't really need any quotes," he says. "That means a higher percentage of the time, people will tell you the truth. The thing that was so hard in doing this is getting people to tell you the truth on camera -- about an incredibly sensitive subject."
Friedman's venture into filmmaking stems from a partnership between the Discovery Channel and the Times's new television unit, which are also launching the digital-only Discovery Times Channel. His program is part of a monthly "Spotlight" series that includes NBC as a partner and debuted last month with a Tom Brokaw special on bioterrorism. "This is something that almost no one else does in television," says Discovery Communications executive Don Baer.
Friedman hardly needs more outlets to tell the world what he thinks. He's won three Pulitzer Prizes, writes best-selling books and appears on such programs as "Face the Nation." But he was drawn to using television to capture the anger and frustration of the Arab world.
"Lots of people can do a great two-minute interview," says Discovery Channel General Manager Clark Bunting. "Weaving together a story as complex as the roots of 9/11 is an editorial and creative challenge of the first order."
Friedman doesn't profess to be neutral in the hour-long show, which airs on Discovery on March 26 at 10 p.m. He even engages a Jordanian professor in a debate on the Arab network al-Jazeera. "This has a little bit of attitude, because I'm not a reporter and I can't pretend to be," he says.
The program contends that anger at the United States and Israel fueled both the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the way they were applauded by some Arabs. But Friedman says there's also a sense of humiliation among Arabs whose societies have fallen far behind the rest of the world.
Some of those interviewed were candid with Friedman only in private. "When you're writing a column, you can say 'an Egyptian youth,' 'a Moroccan intellectual,' 'a Saudi official.' " Still, he says, "it's very important to get these voices. Nine-eleven blew a hole in the wall of civilization, and we can't begin to repair that hole unless we understand what it was all about."
Discovery executives hope Friedman will do four such pieces a year. But he wants to see how this program is received, especially overseas, and there's another consideration as well.
"Being a columnist is a four-day-a-week job. I discovered that being a documentary filmmaker is also a four-day-a-week job, and together they add up to eight days."
Too Perfect Prose
Washington Post business reporter Jonathan Weisman announced last week that he had "violated journalistic ethics" by using a quote from an administration economist that White House spinmeisters had changed.
In a posting on Jim Romenesko's media Web site, Weisman said that for a January profile of former economic adviser R. Glenn Hubbard, he agreed to e-mail the off-the-record quote to Ari Fleischer's office for approval. The office fiddled with the quote, and after Weisman objected, the office fiddled again before the comment was printed.
"I believe that reporters should stop playing along with a system where quotes are vetted by the White House press office and can be rejected and even modified," Weisman says now.
Jill Dutt, The Post's assistant managing editor for financial news, says Weisman hadn't told his editors and was unaware of the paper's rules. "Post policy is that you cannot change a quote once a source has uttered it," she says.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan says that the practice is "infrequent" and that it was done "to accommodate Jonathan," who had told her by e-mail that the unnamed official was "very skittish about even talking on background." But Weisman says he was told the arrangement was the only way the interview would be granted.
How did Salt Lake City's Deseret News get the best family photos of the return of Elizabeth Smart?
Answer: Tom Smart, the 15-year-old's uncle and a family spokesman during her abduction, is a staff photographer. Editor John Hughes sees no problem, saying Smart is on leave and the pictures were made available to news outlets around the world. Photo Editor Ravell Call says that the photos will now be sold by Getty Images but that Smart plans to donate the proceeds to a children's fund.
"It's an odd situation," says Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jay Shelledy. He adds that the rival paper "pulled a lot of punches" last year when police gave Smart a polygraph test as a possible suspect and Smart proclaimed his innocence in the News. Hughes says that the story was fully reported and that the Tribune editors are "petty people" for not crediting Smart's photos to the News.
Poison Pen E-Mail
When a group called the Young Conservatives of Texas was preparing to protest a Bill Clinton appearance in the state, Steve McLinden, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter, used the paper's e-mail to send the group this message:
"Ah, the heartless, greedy, anti-intellectual little fascists are mobilizing again. (Let me guess. All you frat boys saved up your allowances and monies from your McDonald's jobs for those Beemers you'll be driving to the protest, and those new jackboots you'll be sportin' en route)."
Editor Jim Witt let McLinden go that day and apologized to the group. "Obviously, reporters have opinions," Witt says. "But we expect our reporters not to express those opinions unless they're columnists."
Bush administration officials have stopped putting out estimates of how many health care workers would be covered under their smallpox inoculation program.
The reason: They don't like the way the media are covering the issue.
In January, President Bush called for 500,000 hospital workers and others who would deal with a smallpox emergency to be immunized. In recent weeks, news stories have suggested that the effort has flopped, noting that fewer than 5,000 people have heeded the call. Even Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson admits he's disappointed.
But HHS spokesman Bill Pierce says reporters keep portraying the 500,000 figure as a goal: "We've never said it was our goal. . . . We recommend the inoculations. The 'recommend' word is not just the casual use of a phrase. We don't tell them they have to. It's a voluntary program. . . . This is not something that needs to be looked at in success-or-failure terms."
But if there's an attack and less than 1 percent of the first responders are inoculated, wouldn't most people deem that a failure? "Any level of vaccination is a good thing," Pierce says.
When the administration suggested that more health care workers, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, get their shots, HHS refused to estimate how many people that would include. "For us there's no value to putting out numbers the way the media have portrayed them," says Pierce. "They're using the numbers back at us for purposes we never intended."
Is This What They Mean by Embedded?
"The Fayetteville Observer has brought home its reporter and photographer team from Kuwait after reporter Tanya Biank became engaged to an Army major in the unit she was covering." -- the North Carolina paper on Friday.