Frontline Disappoints

A surprisingly weak effort on the financial crisis; do-over needed


That was our response to Frontline’s recent documentary on the financial crisis. And our problem wasn’t even with the crisis. It was with Frontline. We turned our TV to PBS with high expectations—Frontline has earned that—but its latest piece was fatally flawed.

The biggest problem?

It started way too late in the game. Here is the dependably sonorous announcer setting the stage:

Tonight, from the boardrooms on Wall Street to the backrooms in Washington, Frontline goes inside the meltdown.

And then:

The story begins in the spring of 2008, after the housing bubble had burst.

Talk about starting a play with act five. Look. If you don’t go back to the mid-1990s—or at least 2004! Check the record—then you have missed most of the story here. Wall Street did not spontaneously combust. And a few quick backward glances, such as Frontline gives us, are not nearly sufficient to convey to watchers what happened.

Furthermore, if you are watching a story on the economic collapse and you don’t feel your eyes tearing up at least once, you are watching the wrong story. Have you seen all those people getting kicked out of their homes, losing their jobs? You won’t see it on Frontline.

Quite frankly, if documentarians don’t hit you in the gut with the human cost of all this, then they are not doing their job. Off topic, you say? Not in the least. Wall Street and Main Street are intimately connected. That is the essential lesson of this crisis.

But the only tears you will cry during the Frontline piece are tears of boredom. Really. About halfway through our feet started twitching.

The thing is, Frontline has drained the life from this story, and then tried to make up for it with ominous music, strangely angled shots of New York City skyscrapers and a lot of black and white photos of Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke looking worried.

The piece is basically a chronology of collapse and nationalization: Bear, Fannie and Freddie, Lehman, AIG. The usual suspects. If you have been reading the papers with any regularity, you know the story. It is indeed what the voiceover told us at the beginning: boardrooms and backrooms. (More than a third is spent on the collapse of Bear Stearns alone.)

Furthermore, with its focus on Paulson, Bernanke and various Wall Street CEOs, it is most definitely Great Man journalism. We didn’t like in print and we don’t like it on TV. It misses the story: If you look at the crisis primarily through the lens of individuals, you will have either underplayed or missed the systemic reasons for the collapse.

And yet on Frontline we get this quote from a WSJ reporter:

It helps me to think about this crisis as a patient that’s going through spasms, and each time the spasms seem to be getting worse. And it help me to think about Bernanke and Paulson as the two doctors in the room trying to settle the patient down.

Malpractice suit anyone?

But seriously. This comment says more about the imagination of the press than it does about the crisis.

In fact, comments like this serve to obscure the actual problem, as does the Frontline piece as a whole. Focusing on concepts like “moral hazard” and “systemic risk,” as it does, is not useful as a clarification technique. It doesn’t demystify Wall Street so much as Re-mystify it. Boardrooms and backrooms indeed.

Furthermore: About five minutes.

That is how much time Frontline spends describing the mortgage crisis and credit default swaps. And guess which talking head has the job of describing those nefarious mortgage mechanisms? A VP from Lehman! After explaining how his firm offered mortgages in which your loan balance goes up, he says:

I think in hindsight it’s very easy to see there was a bubble, but when you’re at a party having a good time, sometimes it’s hard to stop and leave the party.

And that’s it. That’s the explanation.

Part of the problem here is that Frontline has taken its cue from press coverage. Most of the talking heads who tell us the story of collapse are journalists, from the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and others. So problems with the Frontline piece mirror problems in the press—but, and this is Frontline’s blame alone, without reflecting the work of those who really did get it. Some of whom Frontline even interviews!

Frontline has done excellent financial reporting in the past. But despite some glowing reviews of this piece, we agree with Alternet’s Danny Schechter: Frontline ill-serves watchers here. And we hope it will take another crack at this one.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.