Louis Wiley is executive editor of PBS Frontline. Wiley has been involved in the creation and supervision of documentary programs for 26 years. He began his career in 1970 at WGBH, Boston's public television station. Wiley is a graduate of Yale University and Georgetown University Law School. He spoke with JournalismJobs.com recently about Frontline's approach to story selection, and the creation of Frontline World, a new international series debuting on PBS on May 23.
JournalismJobs.com: How do you decide what topics or issues are worthy of a Frontline piece?
Lou Wiley: There are a couple of tests that we apply. One is it has to be a fairly significant issue for the nation -- a topic that may affect a large number of people. We're public affairs and a lot of our topics are about when journalism intersects with powerful interests. We're often investigating or examining institutions, organizations that have power in society and trying to hold them accountable for what their policies are or what they've done or perhaps not done. Another important ingredient is not only the topic, but how our approach will be distinguished by what our reporters can find in the way of new sources or good access that others may not have had. There should be something special in terms of treating a subject that may have been treated before by others.
JournalismJobs.com: Does Frontline have a point of view?
Lou Wiley: That's a good question. Others might see a point of view. We strive for the kind of producer and reporter who approaches a subject with great curiosity. What we're interested in is somebody who hasn't made of their mind ahead of time. In the end the weight of our reporting may come down on one side or another, but we may think that may be justified by the facts that are reported. The important thing is that you always bring your experience, and perhaps, some personal feelings about a subject. If you're a good reporter, you're open-minded, you're curious, and you're especially anxious to talk to all sides of an issue.
JournalismJobs.com: What piece or pieces have been most controversial?
Lou Wiley: Frontline has been on for 20 years and there have been over 400 broadcasts.
There are several dozen that were quite controversial. Early programs we did were during the Reagan era and we were challenging and testing Iran-Contra, and some other issues involving the Reagan administration. Over the years the ones that are most controversial tend to be the hot-button issues, or when we're putting some powerful institution under scrutiny. Last year we did a program called "Blackout" about the California energy situation. We had interviews with Vice President Cheney, and the energy task force issue arose. Also, it was an early look at Enron and Ken Lay. I think all of these are very revealing, and when you're talking about big institutions or the leaders of the country, they can be controversial.
Sometimes, however, when you have a program about a social situation, it can also be equally controversial. We did a program called "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," in which we discovered that teenagers were having uninhibited sex, and were creating all sorts of health problems. This was discovered by a very good producer who just noticed a sentence or two in a CDC report that there was a big spike in venereal diseases in this county and went to ask some questions and find out. It was a really riveting documentary that meant a lot to the people in Georgia and we hope actually improved a situation. Controversy is usually around the politicians and the corporations, but some of the other programs prove to have quite a reaction.
JournalismJobs.com: What about the piece you did on the pornography industry. Did that create a lot of controversy?
Lou Wiley: Yes.
JournalismJobs.com: Were you criticized for taking on a subject that's sort of sensational?
Lou Wiley: That's a good point. We did a program that was called "American Porn." It was not a subject that you would normally think of for Frontline, but what we discovered was a very good story. We found a big industry that had grown a lot, had changed a lot, and had become much more explicit from the 1970s on. We also discovered that a number of big corporations and big businesses were involved in terms of being able to finance it. But a lot of people are benefitting from it that you might not imagine. We learned that the Justice Department was planning a new program to crack down on pornography. We had a good political story. We had a good business story. We had a good cultural landscape story. We felt that's the best initiative of Frontline, even if it's about the pornography business. It was a highly rated program -- probably double our ratings. Most of the reaction was quite positive.
JournalismJobs.com: Frontline is often used as an example of high-quality broadcast journalism. Could a program like Frontline succeed on commercial television?
Lou Wiley: It would be very hard to succeed on commercial television. When you have subjects that you want to tell in the long form, there are very few outlets that want to spend an hour on a subject, especially if it's a complicated subject. There's some competition from our cable bretheren who do some long form. The networks have pretty well given up on it except for maybe "48 Hours," and an occasional special from Peter Jennings. We understand that Frontline fulfills the mission of public television to serve a smaller audience with material that they will not find in the commercial world. If it were put over in the commercial world, it would have to respond to some concerns and pressures that we're not under.
JournalismJobs.com: Are you concerned that your show and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and other PBS programs cater an elite audience?
Lou Wiley: We do audience surveys and we find, at least for Frontline, we have a pretty good range of ages and even different income levels -- although it skews upwards. There's no doubt that ours is a narrow audience. If it's an elite audience, it's an elite audience from folks from whatever background and whatever income level who are interested in serious stuff. In that sense, it's not a mass-audience program. If the mass audience is looking for escapism or entertainment, there's nothing wrong with that. I like escapism and entertainment sometimes, but I think there should be this alternative choice, so that on a given issue or on some regular basis, there's good solid journalism. That's what Frontline hopes to provide.
JournalismJobs.com: Is there anything on commercial television that you like?
Lou Wiley: In terms of public affairs -- broadcasting or cable casting -- it's a narrower range. But as I said, occassionally the networks, which did a fabulous work in terms of 9/11. I think the cable outfits and the networks did things PBS could not do, and did them pretty much uniformly very well. They should be complimented. I hope they can keep up some of that background reporting and the context that is necessary, money and allow reporters the time to research the subjects, especially as they become more global. As I said, there are strong occasional pieces in the commercial world, but it's not uniform. You could find some strong pieces in "60 Minutes," some Peter Jennings reporting, "Nightline," some Sunday morning programming, and special documentaries that are good, but not a whole lot of it because it doesn't draw as large an audience and they can't charge as much for the commercials. It's as simple as that.
JournalismJobs.com: What do you know about Frontline World? What's its mission, and did it evolve out of Sept. 11th?
Lou Wiley Frontline World was an ideal that was generally around that we should do something not so domestically focused that we should have more international reporting. While we all agreed it was a good idea and we would talk about it with some underwriters or potential funders, it was always in the "good idea" department. But Sept. 11th changed all that. It made it not only a good idea but made it so that people would recognize the absolute necessity that we always felt was there. It evolved out of the Frontline tradition of investigative reporting. It received a tremendous impetus from 9/11.
JournalismJobs.com: Does it have an edgier feel than the traditional Frontline documentary?
Lou Wiley: I think it will be defining itself. We hope it will be a new program, although it's Frontline World at the moment. I think it's going to find it's own definition. It might eventually include some cultural material. It's certainly going to break the mold in the sense that it won't be a single story, but will be three or four stories. I don't know that it will be edgier, but it will certainly look to younger people, and try to maybe use some of the new technologies -- the small cameras, maybe be a little more transparent, watch young reporters, people who haven't been on television before. We know about globalization, but sometimes we're still sort of buried in our own concerns that we don't pay attention. We're going to try to find those things that we should be paying attention to overseas.
Copyright © 2002 JournalismJobs.com. All rights reserved.
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Carol Guzy, photographer, The Washington Post, January 2002
Roger Cohn, editor-in-chief, Mother Jones Magazine, December 2001
Mike Luckovich, cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- November 2001
Lisa Chamberlain, editor-in-chief, Cleveland Free Times -- October 2001
Ben Fong-Torres, former reporter and editor, Rolling Stone magazine -- October 2001
Raul Ramirez, news director, KQED Radio -- September 2001
James Daly, former founder and editor, Business 2.0 Magazine -- August 2001
James Fallows, correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly -- July 2001
David Ignatius, executive editor, International Herald Tribune -- July 2001
David Talbot, founder and editor, Salon.com -- June 2001
Ed Fouhy, former CBS, ABC and NBC news executive -- June 2001
Linda Cohn, anchor/reporter, ESPN -- May 2001
Sol Levine, former producer, CNN -- April 2001
Charlie LeDuff, reporter, New York Times -- March 2001
Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
Sydnie Kohara, anchor, CNET.com -- January 2001
Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, Slate.com -- November 2000
Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000