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David Zurawik: Raney Aronson-Rath: The person behind the best nonfiction series on television

By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Entertainment News

In a year of monumental, complex and challenging stories, no TV journalism outlet has done a more in-depth and responsible job of covering them than "Frontline" on PBS.

The franchise has long been a towering presence in the world of documentary programming on television, but in recent years, it has taken on a keener off-the-news and current affairs edge as it embraced the digital age with podcasts, interactive productions and videos streaming on its YouTube channel.

"Frontline" has always operated with a heightened sense of social consciousness, but as the nation became more polarized and disparities between rich and poor grew in the last four years, the series has become even more important as a social conscience for public television and American society. No one has to remind "Frontline" of the journalistic precept of giving voice to the voiceless. And because it is on public television, you don't have to pay a premium fee to see it.

From "COVID's Hidden Toll," which looked at how the lives of agricultural workers in California are profoundly affected by the virus, to "The Virus: What Went Wrong?" that chronicled government mismanagement of the crisis, the series produced eight documentaries related to the pandemic this year.

"Policing the Police 2020," with New Yorker correspondent Jelani Cobb, revisited during this summer of racial reckoning the landmark look at law enforcement in urban America that he and "Frontline" did in 2016. "Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos" went inside that corporation and its treatment of workers. "Growing Up Poor in America" offered a heartbreaking look at what it's like being a child of poverty in this year of the pandemic. And, as always, politics was front and center with such outstanding films as "The Choice 2020," "America's Great Divide: From Obama to Trump," "United States of Conspiracy" and "Whose Vote Counts?"

The person behind this powerhouse public television franchise is Raney Aronson-Rath, the 50-year-old executive producer, who is completing her fifth year at the helm of the series. She talked with The Sun about her goals for the franchise and how "Frontline" is adapting to the tremendous changes in journalism and media.

 

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Q: What are some of your highlights from 2020?

A: Certainly, "Frontline" has been really focused on the biggest stories of the year, and the biggest one, of course, is the coronavirus that we really leaned into covering from multiple different angles. But our focus has been on those who have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus. So, we really spent a lot of time looking at, for example, the workers in Northern California in "COVID's Hidden Toll." We looked at it from so many different perspectives. We launched a really successful podcast in the middle of the summer as well as where we looked at it ... with an emphasis on the stories we thought were not being told.

I think for "Frontline" the center of what we do is always accountability journalism. So, even if you see our films changing, if you see our cinematography changing, or you see us doing different formats, if you ask yourself what we do, it's always journalism with a capital J, investigative journalism.

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