by Elizabeth Jensen
David Fanning might have had a career as just another talented documentary filmmaker if not for a meeting on a California beach in the mid-1970s and a decision by an official from Boston public television station WGBH to take a risk on an unknown long-haired South African with no formal journalism training, whose home country didn’t even allow television until 1976.
From that decision, however, came one of the great collaborations in television journalism, as Fanning, the recipient of this year’s News & Documentary Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, went on to become the founding executive producer for WGBH’s FRONTLINE, a post he still holds today, 30 years after the launch
Under his leadership, the show– which has broadcast some 550 films about everything from the war on terror and presidential politics to the seven-year saga of day care providers accused of child sexual abuse, Chinese human rights, religion in America, how the media reports on national security, the struggles of family farmers, Appalachian boys and Native American women, and the beauty of funeral homes–has become not only U.S. television’s longest-running investigative documentary series, but a compulsory viewing weekly hour that slices through the media clutter to focus attention on the critical issues of our time.
The documentary had been declared all but dead in 1976, when WGBH executive Peter McGhee went searching for someone to oversee a new PBS show called “World.” His boss told him to look in the ranks of the broadcast networks, where the era of the celebrated “CBS Reports” and NBC’s “White Paper” had given way to glitzier newsmagazines. But, McGhee said, of those he met, “I didn’t find that they were interested in ideas.”
He had, however, “seen a couple docs done by a guy named Fanning,” about religion in South Africa and race in the U.S. Fanning was the son of teachers, the editor of his University of Cape Town newspaper and a self-taught filmmaker, who had sold his motorbike to go to London when the BBC bought his film. He was making documentaries at KOCE, a small PBS station outside Los Angeles, when he and McGhee met on the beach and he convinced McGhee he could get the show up and running.
His hiring, Fanning said, was both surprising and “life-changing.” Over the next five years in Boston, under McGhee’s mentorship, Fanning reached out to filmmakers worldwide, crafting a lineup of 60 films for “World.”
Among them was the 1980 “Death of a Princess.” Produced and co-written by Fanning himself with director Antony Thomas, it became a pivotal early lesson in withstanding intense political pressure. Governments scrambled to placate the oil-producing Saudi government, furious over the dramatized film about a Saudi princess and her lover who had been publicly executed for adultery. PBS, backing Fanning, resisted calls by the U.S. State Department to pull the film, although some PBS stations opted out.
Less than two years later, over a sandwich with Fanning, the more domestic-oriented FRONTLINE was conceptualized on the back of a napkin by a Corporation for Public Broadcasting official, Lewis Freedman. Fanning assembled a team of filmmakers—including Bill Cran, Ofra Bikel, Michael Kirk, David Sutherland, Martin Smith and Lowell Bergman—to whom he turned repeatedly. “He was very ambitious; he knew what he wanted,” said Bikel.
Early films ventured often into arts and culture, but Fanning shaped the show to its times, said Louis Wiley, the program’s longtime executive editor. After the terror attacks of September 2001, FRONTLINE swiveled to probe that event’s roots and aftermath. In recent years, investigative work has dominated, because, Fanning said, “it’s necessary and needed in the culture.”
It isn’t just the stories that FRONTLINE chooses to tell that make the program important, but the marriage of solid journalism with engaging storytelling. To create dramatic interest, a FRONTLINE film, Fanning said, will often “bury the lede,” placing some of its best material “within the context of the narrative, the chronology of the story, rather than presenting it upfront as a headline, the way the commercial networks are forced to do.” So in the 2005 “The Torture Question,” startling home video of U.S. soldiers playing out the torture of Iraqi prisoners ran in the film’s third act, where, Fanning said, “it had a profound weight” for viewers.
“What people don’t quite understand is the amount of work that David has done on the shows that go on the air,” said Raney Aronson-Rath, the show’s deputy executive producer. She vividly recalled her first edit room screening for Fanning after joining FRONTLINE from ABC News. “He watches my film, we finish, and he says, ‘that was a lot of work there, Raney. What I want you to do now is to take out all your narration and your music,’” she recalled. “I literally felt nauseated.”
But stripped of the “unnecessary words and bad music,” she said, the 2003 film about alternative medical treatments “started to sing. It was like learning a new vernacular.” He also taught her, she said, to embed broad ideas in a narrative, by, say, chronicling the American evangelical movement through the experience of President George W. Bush.
“I’ve always said he’s a genius at helping filmmakers find the way out of the forest of their mounds of reporting,” Wiley said.
Fanning mandated transparency. When FRONTLINE started, “documentary making was not transparent in any way,” McGhee said, noting that CBS News was fighting to keep its outtakes private after being sued by General William Westmoreland. What he found in Fanning was “somebody who was so fundamentally committed to discovering the truth of things that he would not succumb to the siren song of easy manipulations that are possible.”
“There’s a deep culture of openness about what we do,” Fanning said simply.
The Web allowed for more transparency. FRONTLINE jumped on board in 1995, when many journalism colleagues still feared the Internet, posting leftover audio from its story about the FBI clash with Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Interview transcripts, primary documents and outtakes soon were being routinely posted, sometimes over a producer’s reluctance. FRONTLINE eventually built a video player to put full films online. “The moment was very dramatic,” Fanning said; “These films were no longer going to be ephemeral.”
Fanning’s insistence on moving online had a side benefit, keeping the show relevant for younger viewers. Rather than cannibalizing the television audience the online streams have expanded its reach.
Over the years, Fanning was courted for more lucrative jobs, and, McGhee said, he “flirted” with Hollywood. The biggest push, Fanning said, came from ABC News’s Roone Arledge. But the freedoms of the FRONTLINE job to pursue exceptional work with filmmakers remained “unprecedented in television,” he said.
Contemplating succession, Fanning has taken careful steps to set up a gradual, almost imperceptible transition, a year ago appointing Aronson-Rath as his successor—whenever that will be. “He’s encouraging me to build my team,” said Aronson-Rath, without setting any public deadline. “We need to have our own rhythm to that,” Fanning said.
But as Aronson-Rath takes over more of the show’s daily operations, Fanning, who is 67 but far from retiring, is focusing on special projects, including the creation of an iPad app and transmedia productions optimized for tablet users that weave together print, video, and still photography.
Newspapers, Fanning noted, are rapidly embracing video, and documentary filmmakers must likewise “look at some ways we can reach back in our own roots, as writers” and embrace multi-layered projects from multiple collaborators, including the numerous journalistic partners FRONTLINE has cultivated in recent years to share ideas and costs. “I think the documentary form is going to be reshaped by this” convergence of media,
Fanning said, still looking forward after all these years.