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PBS’ ‘Frontline’ Doc on Isis Shows Value of Real Journalism in the Age of the Kardashians
May 17, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

This is what was trending on Google News the other day:

“Blac Chyna is Pregnant: 6 Reasons Why Rob Kardashian Is Going to Be a Great Dad.”

There are six reasons — at least — not to care, but that is where the media culture is today. “Tell us what we want to hear” has replaced “Tell us what we need to know” in an industry increasingly driven by the profit motive and the need to keep Time Warner ahead of Viacom and 21st Century Fox in quarterly earnings reports.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, at least not for the discerning viewer.

Michael Kirk’s exhaustive, self-explanatory PBS’ Frontline film The Secret History of ISIS won’t trend on Google News, or anywhere else for that matter, when it airs Tues. May 17 (10 p.m. ET, check local listings).

Perhaps it should, though. Secret History doesn’t go over familiar ground. No mention of the Brussels terror attacks or San Bernardino, Calif. here, except at the very end.

Instead, the program shows how ISIS took root in the chaos of post-war Iraq, and how Washington-based foreign-policy analysts and the U.S. security agencies missed the signs or, in the case of the Obama administration, willfully looked the other way as the problem took root.

The Secret History of ISIS is both history lesson and a harrowing reminder of how easily the big picture can be overlooked in policy wonks’ tendency to obsess over small details, especially when those small details mean lives are at stake in the here-and-now, not in the abstract of a future big- picture scenario that might or might not come to pass.

The problem with focusing on hostage takings and public beheadings to the exclusion of all else is that it’s easy to miss the fact that ISIS — the idea and the ideal — has metastasized to the point where it has become a state within a state, with its own capital, its own flag, its own army and a form of government based on murder, mayhem and a seventh-century religious mindset rooted in ignorance and intolerance.

Kirk, a veteran Frontline producer and correspondent who’s made a career of digging in dark corners from the past, opens his exposé with Colin Powell’s testimony before the United Nations in 2003 and the early days of the Iraq war, and then dovetails into a detailed, painstaking chronology of the rise of militant Islamist and avowed murderer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The ISIS story didn’t start yesterday, in other words. The Secret History of ISIS doesn’t just repeat the old saw about those who cannot remember the past being doomed to repeat it. It tries to do something more. It lays out, patiently and point-by-point, what the signals were, how they were missed, and — most importantly — how to possibly prevent them from happening in future. Yesterday’s Iraq begat Syria today, and may well beget Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and possibly even Israel in future.

Kirk is not a traditional, full-time war correspondent in the mold of a Marie Colvin (below left), Dexter Filkins or Michael Ware. His work for Frontline, — the NFL concussion drama League of Denial, the self-explanatory exposés Breaking the Bank, Power and Wall Street, Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA and others — leans more toward the investigative than straight reportage. His interview technique is tough but fair, aggressive but not confrontational — more Stephen Sackur on BBC’s HARDtalk than Don Lemon on CNN.

One imagines Kirk spending much of his time at the office following the money, poring over public records, tracking down whistle blowers and convincing them to talk on-camera — in short, exactly the kind of TV guaranteed to drive many viewers to other distractions.

It’s the kind of TV we need, though — now more than ever, in a media age where the bottom line counts for everything and not even respected, long-standing institutions like Guardian Media Group and The New York Times Company are immune from downsizing and job cuts. The war against ISIS is fought as much in office cubicles and darkened rooms as it is on the battlefield.

There’s nothing inherently sexy about Kirk, in the Kardashian sense of the word; David Schwimmer is not going to play him in the TV miniseries. Spotlight may have won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, but that hasn’t stopped layoffs at the Boston Globe — home to the very same investigative unit that broke the original story Spotlight was based on, about systemic child abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church in Boston.

Frontline has always preached to the converted. It’s unlikely that PBS will cadge viewers away from The Voice or Chicago Fire to watch the TV equivalent of eating spinach, and the Fox News crowd is unlikely to ever give credence to anything that airs on a public broadcaster.

Still, it’s important that Frontline be there, as an alternative for those who want it and, more importantly, need it.

Marie Colvin, James Foley, James Nachtwey, Tim Hetherington, Ruqia Hassan aka Nissan Ibrahim, Steven Sotloff, Danilo López — which one of these is not like the others?

Jim Nachtwey (left). He’s still alive.

That must count for something.

Hardly a day goes by that ISIS isn’t mentioned on the news. War and bloodletting are tailor-made for 15-second sound bites and fast, snappy flash-video. Perspective takes more time, though, and makes more demands of the viewer. The Secret History of ISIS is the very best kind of documentary journalism: It tells us something we didn’t know — not in this kind of detail, anyway — what we need to know now, and how to apply that knowledge in the future.

Secret History may not be as sexy as Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but it shows what TV can do when it aims for something higher.

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Daphne Macklin
thanks for this review. will watch this on line.
May 22, 2016   |  Reply
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