(KGET) — The PBS series “Frontline” has provided in-depth looks at the most complex, vital and often-controversial subjects through long-form news documentaries for close to four decades. Past topics have included Bernie Madoff’s intricate fraud scheme, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, dealing with AIDs and Wal-Mart’s effect on the U.S. economy.
Up next for the long-running production are two extremely important topics – the rising threat of domestic extremism and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “American Insurrection” is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. April 13 and the two-part “The Virus That Shook the World” starts at 9 p.m. April 26. Both can be seen on ValleyPBS.
“American Insurrection” – from correspondent A.C. Thompson -looks at the individuals and ideologies behind a wave of crimes that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Although the key moment in the documentary is the violence in Washington, D.C., the team at “Frontline” have been looking at various elements in the story for years.
Director Rick Rowley says, “We have been on this beat for 15 years in many ways. And we have made a series of films about border militias, about uprisings in the Intermountain West with the Bundys and others, about the rise in racist groups and neo‑Nazi movements around Charlottesville, and now this, in the last year, this rapid accelerating mobilization of the far-right kind of groups.”
In recent months, “Frontline” has focused on two groups – The Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys. Rowley has seen these groups transform in recent months from being supporters of the previous President to taking a more volatile stand. That has brought the two groups closer together.
Thompson has been able to provide insight into such organizations through his years of reporting on them. In a time when the media is under fire for telling fake stories, Thompson has earned a degree of trust.
But, even with that trust there have been some concerns. Thompson knows there is danger for him and any journalist covering these types of stories.
“We have been targets in what these movements view as full‑spectrum warfare for the last four years. And that’s just the truth of the matter,” Thompson says. “When you go to these events and protests, we are wearing body armor and helmets, and all the other journalists are, too.
I think the thing that’s difficult for us is that as much as a lot of these people dislike the media, they have an attraction to it and they want to use us to get out their message. And at the same time, we want to know what is motivating them and what their intentions are and are they really going to carry out the crazy ideas that they are posting online about kidnapping people and taking hostages and overthrowing the government. “
Thompson calls his reporting a dance where he has to make sure he is not being played by the groups to promote a platform of racist and violent thinking. At the same time, he needs to show how serious these people are and how committed they are to their beliefs.
The test for Thompson in putting “American Insurrection” together was to find the right balance. What the “Frontline” team sees as balance could be seen – especially with conservatives – as being tilted.
Rowley’s defense is that Thompson’s first‑person investigative journey following the crimes, the murders and the kidnapping plots. The reporting of the facts of those are the fodder for the storytelling.
Even armed with the facts, Thompson knows his reporting will be dismissed by many. He recalls standing with a group at a hotel in Washington, D.C. when they were told that Donald Trump had won the election but mainstream media was refusing to tell that story. The crowd of thousands cheered loudly as they believed what they were being told.
Thompson adds, “I guess the last thing I’ll say is that I think we have met a lot of people who seem to cobble their entire ideology and worldview together from YouTube clips, Tweets, Parler posts, and Facebook memes.
“How you sort of inject a reality‑based worldview to people who are living in a sort of filter bubble like that, I am not sure.”
The subject material moves from politics to the pandemic with “The Virus That Shook the World.” The two-part documentary from James Bluemel on what it’s been like for people around the globe to live through the year of the pandemic.
The production was filmed around the world taking a close look at everything from lockdowns to funerals to protests. The team has used extensive personal video and local footage to examine how people and countries responded to the virus, across cultures, race, faith and privilege.