TV Review: Frontline’s ‘The Rise of ISIS,’ Al Jazeera America’s ‘Informants’

Frontline” continues to perform vital work in its coverage of the Middle East and the battle against terrorism, with its latest, “The Rise of ISIS,” forging what amounts to a sobering, well-reported trilogy with “Losing Iraq” and “The United States of Secrets.” The PBS documentary also has a flawed but worthwhile companion of sorts this week in Al Jazeera America’s investigative piece “Informants,” which explores the FBI’s use of paid informants to infiltrate Muslim communities within the U.S., employing questionable tactics, as one source puts it, in “providing information to the government that the government wants to hear.”

Produced and written by correspondent Martin Smith, “Rise of ISIS” goes back to the roots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a.k.a. ISIS, and how U.S. officials failed to heed warnings about the problem, in part because of their legitimate misgivings about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose behavior toward Iraqi Sunnis — described at one point as “paranoid” — helped build support for an extreme response.

Speaking to Obama administration officials as well as critics, analysts and journalists, Smith deftly frames the group’s growth and the President’s reluctance to again devote American troops to the region, informed by a long history of U.S. involvement in such arenas that ended badly. Yet as Smith’s reporting makes clear, both taking action and staying on the sidelines have consequences, leaving policy makers with the unpleasant task of sorting out which option — and constituency — is worse.

Frontline’s” sober-minded reporting on these issues has become a kind of tonic, especially for those weary of the shrillness emanating from partisan media. The money quote actually comes from Smith himself, prefacing a question near the hour’s end by saying, “Our interventions into this part of the world have not gone well in the past.”

Smith tends to speak in soft, soothing tones. Yet even for him, that reflects a very “Frontline”-like gift for understatement.

By contrast, “Al Jazeera Investigates: Informants” broaches a serious topic — to what extent paid informants, sometimes with shady motivations, are seeking to entrap U.S. citizens — and occasionally risks mucking it up with unnecessary visual tics and slightly florid voiceover narration, such as the assertion these informants operate “in the dark corners of America’s justice system.”

That said, correspondent Trevor Aaronson covers an impressive amount of ground in an hour, detailing three separate investigations — in Florida, California and Ohio — that yielded dubious outcomes and in some instances prison convictions. That includes interviews with some of the informants, as well as a few doors shut in Aaronson’s face.

Al Jazeera America remains a faint blip on the media radar, but the channel has distinguished itself by pursuing such stories — in this case, capturing the collision between the desire to thwart terrorist plots and actually concocting them, potentially violating constitutional rights in the process.

Even for those who determine the ends justify the means, it’s the kind of coverage that deserves to be brought into the light — and one reason to hope the fledgling network can keep the lights on.

TV Review: Frontline's 'The Rise of ISIS,' Al Jazeera America's 'Informants'

(Documentary; PBS, Tue. Oct. 28, 10 p.m.) (Documentary; Al Jazeera America, Mon. Oct. 27, 10 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT)  

Production: Produced by Rain Media and Frontline.

Crew: Executive producer, David Fanning; deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath; producer-writer-correspondent, Martin Smith; co-producer, Linda Hirsch. 60 MIN.

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