PBS ‘Frontline’ Tonight Tackles Media and the War

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The timing could hardly be better. “News War” is a “Frontline” probe into the modern Fourth Estate, embattled from many directions. And, by chance, it coincides with the imminent conclusion to a Washington free-for-all that has ensnared the news media: the perjury trial of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

He is charged with lying to investigators about his conversations with journalists such as Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail in a futile effort to avoid revealing such conversations.

The first hour of the four-part series does a splendid job of untangling the snarl of events that began in early 2003 with the Bush administration’s successful drive to win support from the public, and the media, for invading Iraq.

Airing at 9 p.m. today on PBS, “Secrets, Sources & Spin” lays out how the government peddled its point of view to major media outlets by planting confidential tips that supported administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Such tips sparked stories that the government then cited as bolstering its claim.

Few in the media broke this information loop at the time, nor managed to uncover what became obvious only after the invasion: There were no WMDs.

“The way that the press was sold and spun . . . and just fooled by the White House in the run-up to the war represents more than just a missed story,” media analyst Jay Rosen says in the film. “How can one say that we have a watchdog press after a performance like that?”

But this represents just one battle for “News War,” in which investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter whose expose for CBS’ “60 Minutes” was dramatized in the film “The Insider,” finds the news media locked in a protracted conflict with the White House and much of government. It’s a conflict that reaches back four decades to the Nixon administration, which famously warred with the news media before being undone by The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal.

On Feb. 20, “Secrets, Sources & Spin” continues with an inquiry into how much the press can reveal about secret government programs in the war on terror without jeopardizing national security.

It also looks at the pressures on reporters who protect a confidential source under far less threatening circumstances. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were ruled in contempt of court for refusing to reveal the source of leaked grand jury transcripts in a steroid distribution case ? even though their reporting on how sports stars have taken performance-enhancing drugs won awards, added an asterisk to the career of single-season home run king Barry Bonds and was hailed by President Bush.

Confidential sources

“The bottom line is: What should the news media be allowed to do? What privileges should it have?” said Bergman, a professor of investigative journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “Is a conversation with a reporter similar to your conversation with your doctor or your spouse,” where confidentiality is legally protected and widely supported?

Summing up his series, Bergman said, “We’re looking at the issues of confidential sources, national security reporting, and the changing economic model for the news industry.”

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