by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
"The Tobacco Deal," a documentary scheduled for broadcast April 14 on PBS stations nationally, is being created at the Graduate School of Journalism by a crack team of Frontline producers, editors and reporters with the help of journalism students.
"This is a unique opportunity," says visiting Frontline producer Neil Docherty of his student apprentices. "You won't get this experience at a network. I want to pass on the craft of making documentaries - it's a dying craft. Documentaries are the greatest gift TV has brought to the people, but they've been mutated into cheap info-tainment. The networks and cable do the McDonalds version of documentaries; Frontline does the Chez Panisse - the big, challenging, difficult subjects."
As for "The Tobacco Deal," "It's a truly remarkable, dramatic American story," says Docherty of the negotiations between states, the federal government and tobacco companies for an out-of-court settlement. (Docherty produced the 1995 documentary, "Smoke in the Eye" - an Emmy-nominated Frontline exposé of how the media gave in to the tobacco industry.)
In 1996, journalism dean Orville Schell suggested to Frontline's executive producer that a Frontline office at Berkeley could give students first-hand experience with the best in the business and, at the same time, give Frontline a West Coast presence in a provocative university environment.
Thus was born Frontline/West, which makes documentary films for the weekly series aired through WGBH in Boston. Frontline is carried on 200 public TV stations (locally on Channel 9, Tuesday at 10 p.m.), reaching 4 million to 10 million viewers.
Enter Sharon Tiller, Frontline senior producer, who set up a Frontline office at the school last year, where she spends two weeks of every month. (Tiller, '64, was executive producer of "School Colors," the controversial 1994 Frontline documentary about race relations at Berkeley High School.) Tiller organized the first Frontline documentary made with the help of journalism students: last year's "Little Criminals," about the attack on an infant by a six-year-old Richmond boy.
This fall, Docherty, a producer for both Frontline and the Canadian Broadcasting Co., joined the Journalism School's illustrious visiting faculty, along with Frontline reporter and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. Docherty and Bergman taught a course on investigative journalism while Docherty finished up the Frontline documentary "Whale of a Business," about whales in captivity.
Then they started on "The Tobacco Deal." Six advanced journalism students joined the production team this semester as $10-an-hour apprentices. Coordinated by a professional associate producer and editor, the students are organizing archival footage, videos of depositions (some leaked to Frontline and never before seen), and trial documents. They also digitize pictures and interviews and do phone interviews and general gofering.
Megan Mylan is a third-year student completing masters degrees in journalism and Latin American Studies. She is working about 20 hours a week on "The Tobacco Deal," helping with editing. "This is a great opportunity because Frontline just got the latest computer editing system," she says. "I couldn't get a job now without knowing it. Neil wants and values our input - he doesn't just want us to do the grunt work. This is exactly the kind of work I'm going to look for (once I graduate)."
Says Docherty in his rolling Scottish brogue: "It's a big thrill to work with bright, enthusiastic young folk. This is teaching in a practical sense. I can show students what I do instead of tell them."
Says Tiller: "We bring the real world inside the school so students can learn what it means to be a journalist, apprentice with master craftsmen, and have access to people who can help with their careers."
This semester Tiller is teaching the course "The Frontline Documentary: News as the Narrative of Our Time," featuring Frontline producers and reporters presenting and discussing their work.
She also holds monthly brown bag lunches to brainstorm ideas for future
documentaries. So far, China and genetic engineering have come to the fore.