Peabody Award-Winning Documentaries of FRONTLINE
Wes Unruh - 9/19/2014
A PBS institution, Frontline has won a significant number of Peabody Awards. In 1984 Frontline won its first Peabody Award, not for a specific episode or story, but, according to the Peabody board, for “its total contribution to the world of exceptional television.”
Since then, Frontline has won another fourteen Peabody Awards, each for a specific story. The first such award was for Crisis in Central America, a four-part special first aired in spring of 1985. Described by the Peabody board as an exceptional series “which put the accelerating pace of events in Central America into a much clearer perspective.”
In 1988 Frontline began what has become ongoing election year special coverage under the title The Choice. For the first year of this coverage, and again in 1996, Frontline was awarded Peabodys. In both cases, the Peabody board highlighted the invaluable character sketches and in-depth examination of candidate’s personal histories in its winner citations. To wit, in the 1996 citation the board lauds Frontline for its “singular and superior opportunity to examine the men who would be president,” while the 1988 citation calls this coverage “broadcast journalism at its finest.”
One of the most important stories of 1993 was the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. And it was the 1995 Peabody Award-winning special Waco - The Inside Story which presented the complicated, sprawling story of the siege. Combining extensive examinations of the public record and hours of audio and video recording, this detailed account revealed “critical blunders and episodes of miscommunication at nearly every state of the siege” in the words of the Peabody board.
1996 didn’t just see a Peabody Award for The Choice ‘96, but also for The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Frontline‘s meticulously constructed examination of 1989’s “Beijing Spring,” China’s democratic uprising and ensuing government crack-down on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. A six-year long effort, this episode of Frontline provided “needed context to the history and political attitudes shaping its development, and reflecting the drama, absurdity, heroism, and finally, the tragedy of the period.”
Two years later, Frontline won another Peabody for its 1998 episode Washington’s Other Scandal, an exploration of political fundraising and campaign financing which correspondent Bill Moyers detailed, as he made the case that “Politics ... has become an arms race, with money instead of missiles.” The Peabody board emphasized how important it was that this program explained “how both parties routinely sidestep the law and use ‘soft money’ to run roughshod over the electoral process.”
The following year saw Frontline win a 1999 Peabody for its program The Lost Children of Rockdale County, an investigation into the syphilis outbreak in and around Atlanta in 1996. For five months the producers of this episode interviewed teenagers in Conyers, Georgia, ultimately producing an in-depth exploration of the issues which triggered the outbreak. The Peabody board found this exploration of the “alienation and loneliness that leads to binge drinking, drug abuse, unsafe and dangerous sexual activity and violence” to be a “striking… portrait of teenagers adrift and at risk,” in the words of the award’s citation.
In 2000, it was Drug Wars which caught the attention of the Peabody board. Encompassing thirty years of public policy and the ensuing political and military involvement, the documentary combined interviews with government officials, Drug Enforcement Agency agents, drug smugglers, and drug users with historical context and criticism of ongoing attempts to curb drug use. According to the winner citation, “this four-hour documentary focuses on the always complicated, intertwined social, cultural and political forces that continue to dominate drug policy in the new millennium.”
Then, in 2002, the documentary Shattered Dreams of Peace, The Road from Oslo aired, covering the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of the summer of 2000. Beginning with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the subsequent breakdown of the peace process, this documentary was seen by the Peabody board as “a clear, compelling, frustrating yet hopeful exploration of the prospects for peace in the Middle East” according to its winner citation.
A year later, Frontline again won a Peabody, this time for a documentary which examined the injuries and deaths occurring inside factories in the United States. A Dangerous Business was a joint investigation Frontline conducted alongside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The New York Times. The story centered on McWane, Inc., and the thousands of individuals who were seriously injured working for McWane. As its winner citation explains, the documentary resulted in the United States Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency announcing new workplace safety regulations and fining McWane, Inc., $196,000 for workplace violations.
Cheney’s Law brought home a Peabody Award for Frontline in 2007 for exploring Vice President Dick Cheney’s controversial and complicated relationship with President Bush, particularly in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Its winner citation commends Frontline for “even-handedly documenting the hard realities of an ongoing ideological clash over the extent of Presidential power” and highlights the “gripping recap of a now-legendary confrontation in a Washington hospital room” between White House counsel and Attorney General John Ashcroft over the constitutionality of a national surveillance program.
Frontline‘s next Peabody was awarded in 2009, for the documentary The Madoff Affair. As its citation explains, “Bernard L. Madoff and his colossal Ponzi scheme cost investors $65 billion and dominated the news for months” but it wasn’t until this documentary aired that the entire story was revealed. The fraud Madoff committed “lasted longer, reached wider, and cut deeper than any business scandal in history.”
The very next year, Frontline again won a Peabody Award, this time for “illuminating and documenting the hidden costs of our ongoing wars abroad” in the words of the Peabody board. The Wounded Platoon, broadcast in 2010, examined a single platoon out of Fort Carson, Colorado, as a case study to discuss the dramatic and life-changing experiences of soldiers across the country returning from war. Exploring lives of veterans returning from war with post-traumatic stress, this documentary shed light on the experiences of decorated veterans incarcerated for crimes, struggling with depression, and lacking sufficient psychiatric help.
Most recently, Frontline accepted a 2013 Peabody Award for League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis, based on the book League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The documentary charts the impact of the chronic brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy on NFL’s players. But it moves beyond purely medical reporting to uncover intentional efforts by the NFL to repress findings and discredit researchers who sought to raise the alarm about the dangers of football. As the Peabody board wrote in its winner citation, “viewers may feel a bit uneasy with the implications of their own fandom for what is increasingly understood as a very unsafe sport.”
From its very first 1983 season, Frontline has brought insightful, well-documented, and culturally significant stories to the television screen. Since 1995, Frontline has also been bringing additional relevant materials to the Internet, creating resource pages and teaching guides for each of the documentaries it has aired. While there have been a great number of changes to the show itself since it first aired, Frontline has never lost its ability to showcase human struggle for, and engender empathy within, its audience.