"Springfield Goes to War" is more important for what it's part of than what it is.
The "Frontline" special, airing at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), is part of a growing chorus of media voices demanding a national debate on America's involvement in the Persian Gulf.
The tone and substance of much TV coverage of the Persian Gulf has changed significantly the last few weeks.
Initially, there was great saber-rattling and cheerleading by TV newscasters. But as the real emotional and financial price of our involvement started to set in and public opinion about President Bush's military buildup started to shift, so has the coverage.
"Springfield Goes to War" is a two-part show. Taken together the two half-hour parts are "Frontline's" way of telling Bush and Congress that if they won't call a national debate, the media will do it for them.
The first part is a "portrait" of Springfield, Mass., and how it's been affected by the military buildup in Saudi Arabia.
The second part is a town meeting on the buildup that took place over the weekend in Springfield. The meeting was arranged by "Frontline" and is hosted by Bill Moyers.
The program is part of a mandate that "Frontline," which has done some outstanding documentary work, be more timely. The "portrait" of Springfield, the only part of the show available for preview, sacrifices a lot for that timeliness. It is superficial to the point of being sketchy.
Viewers are told, "If America is worried about the Middle East, you can hear about it in Springfield, Mass." We do hear about it. But what we hear has been said and reported with greater depth in dozens of places -- including quick daily reports.
In fact, "Frontline" follows the same track and rounds up the same suspects as daily TV news reports have done night after night the last few weeks. We move from the town square to a radio call-in show to a local coffee shop to a nearby military base. No surprises and not much enterprise either.
Ultimately, the "portrait" must be judged in terms of the whole show. But "Frontline" surely could have done a better job of framing the topic of its town meeting and lent more weight to its call for national debate with better reporting and analysis.