The first half of this four-part project exploring the besieged state of U.S. journalism should be the least interesting, or let's hope so. Subsequent chapters of "News War" will delve into profit pressures reshaping broadcast, print and cable news, as well as the Arab media's role in the schism between Western culture and Islam.

On its face, the first half of this four-part project exploring the besieged state of U.S. journalism should be the least interesting, or let’s hope so. Subsequent chapters of “News War” will delve into profit pressures reshaping broadcast, print and cable news, as well as the Arab media’s role in the schism between Western culture and Islam. As is, the premiere and part two provide a reasonably good recap of the Bush administration’s antagonistic relationship with the press and issues surrounding the Valerie Plame leak investigation, but ultimately prove more a rehash than breaking any new ground.

Granted, correspondent Lowell Bergman’s version of “The story so far” in part one is by itself helpful, if only to remind casual viewers (assuming any of those watch “Frontline”) of the “How did we get here?” run-up to war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMDs and the press’s pliability in building the case for invasion. A particularly telling clip features Bob Woodward, the Washington Post patriarch of investigative journalism, telling Larry King before the war that the chance of unearthing no weapons of mass destruction was “about zero.”

Woodward, of course, wasn’t the only journalist, pundit or politician to wind up with egg on his face, and Bergman spends considerable time examining the role of unidentified sources and government spin, especially as they pertain to New York Times reporter Judith Miller — jailed for failing to divulge names, but also responsible for much of the paper’s faulty reporting on Iraq’s weapons programs. In hindsight, Times editor Bill Keller concedes regarding Miller and the principle of protecting sources, “Everyone wished it was a cleaner case” due to the “problematic nature” of the reporter (Miller) and the leak (disclosing a CIA operative’s name).

Unfortunately for the special, with former Bush administration official Lewis Libby’s perjury case making daily headlines, events have essentially eclipsed this opening hour. The second installment, meanwhile, offers a solid account of the Bush administration’s secrecy and its rejection of the press’s traditional role as a check on government.

Upcoming parts (with two in February and a third in late March) about the bastardization of news raise the most germane issues, with broader ramifications regarding the press’s utility as a watchdog and journalism’s future as it’s tugged at by economic and technological forces, resulting in more ratings- and circulation-chasing fluff.

Lord knows there’s precious little introspection or intelligent dialogue about the media within the broadcast space, so Bergman’s sober examination of even this well-trodden material is welcome. Still, the introductory chapters of “News War” at best relay a glimpse of a much larger battle; let’s hope higher-impact volleys lie ahead.

News War: Secrets, Spin and the Future of the News

PBS, Tues. Feb. 13, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by "Frontline" in association with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and WGBH Boston. Series executive producer, Sharon Tiller; senior producer, Ken Dornstein; producers, Raney Aronson-Rath, Arun Rath; co-producer, Seth Bromse; director, Aronson-Rath; writers, Aronson-Rath, Lowell Bergman, Bromse.

Crew

Running Time: 60 MIN.

Cast

Correspondent: Bergman
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