Media Writers On Public Broadcasting's 'Imaginative,' 'Superb' and 'Humdinger' Programs

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

From coverage of the housing market meltdown to foreign war reporting, public radio and television have offered significant and groundbreaking coverage, according to top media critics and observers.

In the wake of the recent controversy over secret videotapes of top NPR officials -- and proposals to cut federal funding for NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- Media Matters asked those who cover the media and opine on it what they consider the most impactful public broadcasting offerings of the past.

David Zurawik, TV critic for The Baltimore Sun, cited the NewsHour on PBS and its overseas coverage of Egypt and other recent tragedies as notable.

"They were doing really imaginative coverage, providing context," he said of the foreign reports. He also noted PBS's Frontline: "the number of great productions I have seen on Frontline is huge."

Zurawik pointed to the February 2009 Frontline program, "Inside the Meltdown," about the housing crisis.

"It showed us the deals that were made between the government and Wall Street at the time. Frontline goes where 60 Minutes won't, into the deeply-ingrained economic problems. And Frontline is not fat and happy, they are always looking for people to partner with."

Alex S. Jones, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former media writer for The New York Times, said: "I can give you a humdinger -- Laura Sullivan's series on bail bondsmen -- absolutely spectacular."

He referred to the three-part report on NPR this past January that just won an Alfred I duPont Award from Columbia University.

"It brought something to my attention that was utterly unexpected and utterly unknown, that more than two-thirds of the population that are in jail are there because they can't afford bail," he said.

"The bail bond business does not want people to be freed on their own recognizance. They contribute mightily to the organizations that would or would not make those changes in law."

Jones also cited the "ongoing, superb reportage over the years of [senior European correspondent] Sylvia Poggioli, based in Rome. She is one of many of the jewels of NPR."

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, went back to a 1991 NPR report on reserve soldiers in Utah and the impact of the Persian Gulf War on a local town.

"It was a simple story, but I thought it represented what NPR does best," he said of the Morning Edition program that ran Jan. 29, 1991.

"It was about a group of reserve soldiers and officers going off to war. It was recorded in a small town and what was so powerful was the way that Howard Berkes essentially made me feel as if I was right there. I felt as if I were there with the wives and the children, the older leaders and citizens of the town who understand the implications of this."

Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica, pointed to a report on the 1986 Challenger disaster by NPR's Danny Zwerdling. It revealed engineers from Morton Thiokol Inc., which was contracted by NASA to develop the Challenger, were concerned about the safety of the shuttle when it was launched and exploded.

"My personal favorite NPR news story is the guy who first broke the story on Morton Thiokol engineers ... that they knew the O-rings were no good and were praying when it went up that the things would hold up."

Jeff Bercovici, a Forbes media writer, cited Planet Money and PRI's This American Life, citing the focus on the mortgage scandal and other finance needs.

"Planet Money is great," he said. "It was something that was badly needed. Americans clearly need a lot more economic literacy. It was the right thing at the right time and executed superbly."

Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune media columnist, also praised the Ira Glass-hosted program.

"I think This American Life does a great job of storytelling, telling great stories about things that are complicated - why the economy went into the tank," Rosenthal said. "The same storytelling they apply to an ordinary person or a simple narrative, they apply it to complex economics."

He also noted Frontline, stating it "is terrific. In general it takes on subjects that may or may not get wide consideration and brings a different depth to it. The way they approach Haiti is different than say CNN approaches Haiti, it is a little different, a little more nuanced."

Rosenthal even cited Sesame Street, saying such a program was a breakthrough when it began more than 40 years ago: "When they started Sesame Street, no one was doing Sesame Street."

Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times media writer, pointed to Planet Money.

"I think Planet Money did an amazing job deconstructing the housing market meltdown. They had a series of programs that had an amazing way of illustrating it that was better than most people, especially in terms of explaining it to an audience."

Deggans also cited NPR's foreign coverage.

"NPR has a lot of bureaus. Any sort of foreign trouble in Japan or Egypt, has been very well done," he said, adding, "Particularly when the Iraq War first started. Ann Garrels did a really great job. They were turning in great reports at a time in Iraq when reporters basically could not leave their bunkers without significant risk of being kidnapped or killed."

"They were right there alongside The Washington Post and The New York Times when it was so dangerous and cost so much to have personnel in the middle of a war zone."

Robert Bianco, USA Today television writer, says it is hard to pick one PBS program since they do so many that trump network television or even the growing cable outlets.

"All you have to do is look at the listings. PBS is doing American Experience and from Frontline to Sesame Street to Great Performances," Bianco said. "Every time the [commercial TV] market tries with A&E, Bravo, the Learning Channel, it quickly finds that there is more profit to be found in the Housewives of Orange County."

Bianco later cited Ken Burns' The Civil War, which is set to be repeated in April, as an example of excellent programming.

"One of the great pieces of television art," he said about the series. "You tell me what American company at the moment, other than HBO, would do that? It's the breadth, the scholarship, the inventiveness, the originality. The ability to remind the entire nation that seemed to have forgotten about its most deadly war."

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