Not as compelling or as fresh as Frontline’s DROPOUT NATION last fall, THE EDUCATION OF MICHELLE RHEE raises more questions than it answers. Once again, it proves how hard it is to join the issues in reporting on education when the answers have more to do with the general health of the children being educated and the management of a bureaucracy than with teaching. Alexander Russo’s comments on the PR “coincidences” surrounding the Frontline documentary are intriguing and worth pursuing. Knowing that this is a compilation of PBS NewsHour reports somewhat explains its limitations. Had I known that and hadn’t seen the press on Rhee’s new venture I might not have watched. I got the attitude, the personality, the controversy, but overall I wanted to learn more.
Chris Matthews followed at 10 p.m. with an MSNBC documentary essay Barack Obama – Making History. Taking an historic view of the election of the nation’s first black President, Matthews reminded us of Obama’s international appeal by noting that he visited 20 or more countries, more than any other president in his first term. Matthews made explicit the character and meaning of this Presidency for our nation. Where CNN’s program was too tight, MSNBC’s was too loose in construction. Its commercial blocks were shorter, but notably one ad from Chevron defended fracking. The viewer was reminded where real power resides. To combine the strengths of both programs would result in a real documentary that if presented without commercials would contribute to voters understanding and education. Oh, that’s FRONTLINE’S “THE CHOICE” on PBS. Or at least it has been, in past election years, the best documentary consideration of the presidential candidates before the electorate.
James Carville, invited to opine last night on CNN after it showed Obama Revealed: The Man, The President, began by saying, “the piece, ‘documentary’, I guess you’d call it.” Anderson Cooper had to reassure him it was a documentary, but I kept thinking if CNN believed more strongly in long form reporting Cooper would have introduced it and introduced the cable network’s reporter, chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin. She did a credible job of interviewing, especially when she spoke with the President, but not once did I see or hear her name during 90 minutes of the “documentary” in which commercials seemed more dominant than reporting.
CNN seemed tone deaf in that the first commercial was for “Clean Coal” – but there were eight commercials, usually, in four-minute blocks for about every six minutes of program material. Then, each program segment began by repeating something we had just heard and seen. Ultimately we did “learn something”, as Carville said, about the president’s accomplishments, but at a breathtaking speed because of how the ‘documentary’ was packaged.
After it was “over”, segments were repeated and “analyzed” by Cooper, Candy Crowley, Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, Alex Castellanos, Carville – and Yellin, the only one I hadn’t seen before. Admittedly, I haven’t watched CNN for long time, not since Time Warner moved it higher up on its list of channels. I found it in HD on Channel 778. What a shame to see such good work, more an extended news analysis than a documentary, interrupted and so poorly presented.