'Frontline's' report on Clinton falls to the rear Inside view leaves the interest out

January 19, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

LOS ANGELES -- "Frontline" is correct in wanting to be mor current. But some of its least impressive work is done when it tries for timeliness.

"Clinton Takes Over," which airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26), is timely all right. But there's not much more to recommend the report, which PBS bills as "the first inside view of the new administration."

Not all of the report was available for preview. So, maybe, what airs tonight will suddenly get terrific in the last segment, the one that consists of material "Frontline" was still reporting and editing over the weekend. But that would be a surprise, given the first two-thirds of the piece.

"Clinton Takes Over" is about President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team from the night of his election in November to the bus ride Sunday from Monticello, Va., to Washington. Curtis Wilkie, political reporter for the Boston Globe, does some of the reporting for the hourlong piece. Hodding Carter does the rest, as well as narrating.

"Frontline" claims it had "unprecedented access to behind the scenes maneuvering," but you wouldn't know it from the report.

Mostly what viewers get is Wilkie and Carter interviewing other journalists about Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore, or more talk than you ever wanted to hear from DeeDee Myers and George Stephanopoulos, the presidential press secretaries. I'm sorry, but hearing an official spokeswoman -- Myers -- saying Clinton and Gore "are real policy wonks" is not my idea of "unprecedented access" or inside information.

The producers did have some access to Robert Reich. But instead of any real insight into what was going on in the formulation of economic policy, what viewers mainly get is Reich complaining about not being able to spend enough time with his family, a scene that seems as self-serving and stage-managed as anything Michael Deaver & Co. ever did in Ronald Reagan's early days in the White House.

There is one good hit that's almost up to the level of "Frontline" when it's on its game. That segment deals with the economic conference in Little Rock, Ark., in December.

"Frontline" shows a portion of the televised proceedings, which includes Clinton's looking very surprised when told by experts that the deficit was worse than previously thought.

Then "Frontline" does a pretty good job of making a case that Clinton knew full well going into the conference that the deficit was worse than expected and what the nation saw on TV was an orchestrated performance aimed at lowering expectations raised by Clinton's campaign promises.

In short, the look of surprise on Clinton's face was phony.

That's as good as it gets tonight on "Frontline." And that's not nearly good enough for what should have been the centerpiece of PBS enterprise reporting during inauguration week.

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