'Frontline' traces the road to war

Television's Midseason Report -- Michael Hill in L.A.

January 15, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes PBS' "Frontline" documentary series looks at a current event in the context of decades or even centuries of history to gain a different perspective.

But, in the case of the current crisis in the Middle East, you only have to look back six months to gain a fresh viewpoint that sheds light on the conventional wisdom about this fast-breaking and quick-changing story.

"Frontline" does that tonight with "To the Brink of War," an hour scheduled for broadcast at 9 o'clock. Though the documentary will be edited virtually up to airtime, with even the possibility of live updates, the basic structure should remain unchanged.

"We're very proud of it," David Fanning, "Frontline''s executive producer, said. "It was put together over the past month. It started out as a fairly modest project."

RTC Fanning explained that the idea was to gather journalists who have spent time covering the crisis -- eventually correspondents and editors from the New York Times, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post were interviewed -- "to try to get some picture of the emerging crisis.

"What emerged is a far more complex and substantive program. It's just one more example of the fact that if you put the facts down and do the reporting and put them in a row, you discover that no one else has done it quite that way."

What "To the Brink of War" documents effectively is the way in which the policy that has led us to that precarious position has often changed over the months of the crisis, something that is lost in most of the network coverage that emphasizes the latest developments and thus often sacrifices context.

"To the Brink of War," which is reported by Hodding Carter, goes back to the weeks preceding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, showing definitively that the United States government made major mistakes in those crucial days.

Not only was there the oft-reported meeting between Saddam Hussein and the American ambassador to Iraq, in which the message was reportedly delivered that the United States would not interfere in these intra-Arab disputes, but it's almost chilling to hear a State Department spokeswoman emphasizing that the United States has no mutual defense pact with Kuwait even as Iraqi troops were being massed on its border.

"To the Brink of War" also suggests the possibility that a long-scheduled meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that took place just as Iraq invaded Kuwait had a significant influence on the President's subsequent hard-line position.

From then on, in interviews with the journalists and, in particular, with Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the hour follows the evolution of the aim of American policy, from defending Saudi Arabia and bringing sanctions to bear on Iraq to liberating Kuwait from Iraqi hands by force if necessary, to apparently toppling Hussein's regime.

The influence of opinion polls and November's mid-term elections on the timing and substance of announcements, whether of troop buildups or Hussein's nuclear capability, is well documented.

"What we've done is not necessarily set out to make either a critical or uncritical view of White House decision-making. We simply put the pieces in a row and let people come to some conclusions about how the policy has shifted and changed over the course of months," Fanning said of the documentary.

"I think it's extraordinary that, given that the national news source is television, that none of the networks have done this," she said.

"There's a great deal more one could do with a network's resources. And I can't understand why a network wouldn't open up three hours on Tuesday night and do that, or have done it several times in the last few weeks. It seems to belong to fringe time, to 'Nightline' or to the nightly news programs," Fanning said.

Fanning said that "Frontline" currently has a team in Iraq and is prepared to be an important part of whatever coverage PBS gives to the crisis.

PBS president Bruce Christensen said the the "MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour" and "Frontline" will be involved in that coverage. But perhaps the most poignant moment came when he was discussing the unique contribution PBS can make to television's coverage and said that Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers, was preparing a special segment that would try to explain war to children.

To the brink of war, indeed.

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