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David Fanning

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipient, 2007

Executive Producer, FRONTLINE

Fanning

Since its creation in 1983, the PBS documentary program, FRONTLINE, has had a remarkable place in American journalism.  David Fanning, its founder and executive producer, has helped FRONTLINE achieve this role by combining investigatory reporting with narrative storytelling to create documentaries that inform, persuade and inspire people.  The program has covered issues of importance, from foreign policy to domestic tensions, but in a way that touches people’s lives and gives the stories relevance.  Through Mr. Fanning’s efforts, strong, independent documentary voices have been heard for more than two decades.

Between the broadcast series and the website, FRONTLINE has reached many millions, indeed generations, often with controversial or unpopular messages, but always with integrity and a dedication to the highest ideals of journalism.  Even more remarkably, FRONTLINE has been willing to ask hard and unflinching questions about government itself, despite the fact that public television depends in part on government appropriation for its funding.  And FRONTLINE has never pulled its punches, even (perhaps especially) during administrations that have been very hostile to the idea of public television itself.  FRONTLINE has often turned its incisive eye to issues of core importance to the Media Law Resource Center and its members, including the reporter’s privilege, reporting on national security issues during wartime and the implications of a rapidly changing media landscape.  Because of these contributions, Mr. Fanning is being honored with MLRC’s William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award.

Driven by Curiosity

The son of teachers in South Africa, Mr. Fanning spent a year in 1964-65 as an AFS foreign exchange student at a high school in Newport Beach, California.  He recalled that, “The students were reading ‘Cry, the Beloved Country,’ and they wanted to ask me about apartheid.  I had to admit that I’d never been allowed to read the book in my home country — it was banned there.  In South Africa, you couldn’t ask very many questions, and the lines were very clearly drawn.  That we could have a free and open discussion made a deep impression on me as a young man.  It was my first encounter with the First Amendment, and I never forgot it.”

Mr. Fanning never attended journalism school.  But as a student at the University of Cape Town, he became the editor of the student newspaper.  It was the late sixties and a time of political turmoil.  “I loved reporting – the words, the pictures, the headlines,” he said.  “Mostly I learned the value of ideas and the expression of them.  Journalism gave me a license to be curious.”

Later, while still in South Africa, he began making documentary films on race and religion in his troubled homeland.  There was no television in South Africa — the government didn’t allow it until 1976 — but one of his films, “The Church and Apartheid,” was bought by the BBC, which took him to London.  In 1973, Mr. Fanning came to the United States and had an opportunity to produce local and national documentaries for PBS station KOCE in Huntington Beach, California.  He initially worked for no pay.  Four years later, he moved to WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, to start the international documentary series World, where, as executive producer, he presented over 50 films in five years.

One of those films, “Death of a Princess,” which he produced and co-wrote, about the execution of a Saudi Arabian princess accused of adultery, created an international uproar in 1980.  The Saudi Arabian government launched a major public relations campaign against the film and expelled the British ambassador.  Mobil Oil, a major underwriter of programming on PBS, ran ads in The New York Times criticizing the film.  Members of Congress objected. The State Department put pressure on PBS and some stations refused to air the film.  Mr. Fanning himself became the target of ire.  He was named as a defendant in a $20 billion lawsuit (ultimately dismissed) that accused him of defaming Islam.  In the end, backed by his station, WGBH, and PBS, public television stood firm and the program was broadcast to the largest audience in PBS history.  Needless to say, the early criticism did not dissuade Mr. Fanning from tackling future controversial or hard-hitting topics.

Scribbles on a Napkin

FRONTLINE began as the roughest of drafts: a few ideas scribbled on the back of a napkin in 1981.  Mr. Fanning was having lunch with Lewis Freedman, then director of the Program Fund at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Mr. Freedman challenged him to expand World from a limited international series to a weekly series covering both domestic and foreign subjects.  From that lunch, came FRONTLINE “From the beginning, we wanted to make the connection between great journalism and great filmmaking,” Mr. Fanning said.  “We would try to create a place on public television where we could publish what I called ‘literate television.’  And we wouldn’t turn away from controversial issues or stories others had avoided because they seemed too complex for television.  We also knew we wanted to give producers time – time to read, to think, to understand the context and meaning of an idea or a story.  Above all, we wanted it to be intelligent. And we wanted people to watch.”  People did just that.

Team Builder

Mr. Fanning has demonstrated a knack for shepherding innovative ideas and creative people.  He has worked with more than 200 producers and as many journalists, covering a range of domestic and foreign stories.  Producer Michael Kirk attributes FRONTLINE’s success to teamwork.  “True to Fanning’s original promise, the producers have always been the leaders of the teams, and the task of blending narrative, structure and content has always been our province,” Kirk said.  “And, perhaps most importantly, those relationships have been developed personally, not imposed institutionally.”

Mr. Fanning is pivotal not only in pulling the talent together, but also in pulling the story together.  “David loves film and stories, but when he’s going over a script, he’s as tough as a lawyer,” FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel said in a newspaper interview.

Mr. Fanning concedes that pulling together the stories is a challenging task.  “The best documentaries are, I think, harder to make than a dramatic film,” he said.  “Movies, to a large extent, stand or fall on the strength of their scripts.  But a documentary is a collection of found objects: fragments you’ve collected, accidents of interview and happenstance, pieces of stock footage that surface in the course of six to nine months of research and production.  The puzzle of making those disparate pieces fit into a dramatic structure – one that has acts, one that has an arc of inquiry and discovery – is a very, very difficult thing to do well.”  But Mr. Fanning and company have managed to do it extremely well, and FRONTLINE’s commitment to journalistic excellence has paid off over the years.  After 25 seasons and over 500 documentaries, FRONTLINE has won all of the major awards for broadcast journalism, including 38 Emmys, 23 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, 12 George Foster Peabody Awards and 11 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards.

History’s First Draft

FRONTLINE remains America’s only regularly scheduled investigative documentary series on broadcast television.  “The hardest challenge has been to be fresh and surprising week in and week out,” Mr. Fanning said.  “I don’t really think of FRONTLINE as a strictly public affairs series; I think of it as a work of journalism that is constantly reinventing itself.  It has ranged widely over the years as we’ve looked to balance our own curiosities with the ways in which the world is shifting its focus and attention.  FRONTLINE can move from child sexual abuse to early Christianity; from politics to the press; from Hollywood to Washington.  But the real test is whether the stories we do matter.”

Nothing illustrates FRONTLINE’s relevance more than its in-depth coverage of terrorism — beginning years before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  On April 13, 1999, the program aired “The Terrorist and the Superpower,” which investigated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa, and included interviews with Osama Bin Laden done in 1998.  Two days after 9/11, FRONTLINE re-broadcast the program as “Hunting Bin Laden,” and it was screened extensively on Capitol Hill and in the White House in the following week.  The series quickly followed up with related stories, including “Target America” (October 4, 2001), “Looking for Answers” (October 9, 2001), “Trail of a Terrorist” (October 25, 2001) and “Saudi Time Bomb?” (November 15, 2001).

FRONTLINE also ran in-depth stories examining the arguments for war in Iraq, beginning with “Gunning for Saddam,” which aired on November 8, 2001, just two months after 9/11.  “The War Behind Closed Doors” (February 20, 2003) and “The Long Road to War” (March 17, 2003) aired just before the invasion.  In all, the program has filled its journalistic mandate by producing over 40 hours of documentaries across the landscape of terrorism and the wars in the Middle East, including over 20 documentaries on the politics of the Iraq war and its architects, as well as fallout from the war.  (To name a few: “Truth, War and Consequences,” “Rumsfeld’s War,” “Chasing Saddam’s Weapons,” “The Invasion of Iraq,” “The Soldier’s Heart,” “The Torture Question,” “The Dark Side,” “Gangs of Iraq” and most recently, “Cheney’s Law,” which looks at executive power and its relationship to secret operations during wartime.)

Of interest to the media community, FRONTLINE earlier this year conducted a probing four-hour series on the news media itself, “News War,” which examined the issues of reporter’s privilege and use of confidential sources, reporting on national security, challenges facing traditional media with the growth of the Internet and the changing concept of news.

Realizing Television’s ‘Promise’

Mr. Fanning has taken great strides to make the news accessible beyond television.  With his encouragement, FRONTLINE embraced the Internet early on, in 1995.  Mr. Fanning explained the early interest in the Web: “This is a story that starts in a lawyer’s office in Austin, Texas, where one of our researchers, trying to uncover material on Waco and the Branch Davidians, came across a treasure trove of recordings of the negotiations between the FBI and the Branch Davidians.  And that became the heart of our documentary.  But we were only able to use fragments in the final program.  So we were looking at that rich audio material, and wondering what else we could do with it, when someone in the office said, ‘We can put it on the Web.’  None of us knew that was possible, but quickly discovered that we could also put all of our additional interview transcripts up on a website, as well as the primary documents.  It was a big-bang moment for us.  We were making our in-depth work available for the future, and we were making our journalism transparent.  As best we know, ‘Waco: The Inside Story’ is probably one of the first deep-content editorial websites in history.”

Today, more than 65 hours of full-length documentaries are streamed on the website, which gets tens of millions of visitors each year.  “This is the great promise of public media,” Mr. Fanning said.  “This is where we hold our work for the future, our public library, our contribution to the intellectual commons.”

In 2001, Mr. Fanning’s desire to bring more foreign stories to American audiences led to the creation of FRONTLINE/World, a television magazine-style series designed to encourage more reporting — by a new, younger generation of producers and reporters — on countries and cultures rarely seen on American television.  Now entering its sixth season, FRONTLINE/World has also made a deep commitment to the Web, offering original web-only video and reporting by graduate journalism students and an international network of correspondents.

It is our privilege to honor Mr. Fanning tonight.

 
 
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