Award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk has been with “Frontline” since the PBS series’ inception in 1983. In addition to covering the 2008 financial crisis and numerous other major news events, he is a producer on the “Frontline” documentary “The Choice,” which profiles each candidate before every presidential election.
This month, in addition to a profile called “Trump’s Road to the White House,” “Frontline” will premiere Kirk’s “Divided States of America,” a brilliant and destabilizing four-hour miniseries about the deep ideological rifts that currently define American politics. “Divided States” may well be the most important piece of journalism about this tumultuous era of identity politics and populist backlash; with close detail, the docuseries uncovers the anger and institutions that underpinned the ultimate failure of President Barack Obama’s grand dreams and set the stage for Donald Trump’s surprising and unprecedented victory.
Variety spoke with the veteran journalist about the difficulties of creating cogent narratives in an era of information deluge and media hyper speed, as well as how the media can attempt to address the suspicion and distrust directed at journalistic institutions — from not just voters, but many professional politicians, too.
“Divided States” helped viewers finally make sense of the last eight years in American politics. Was that the idea?
What we’re doing is slowing it all down a little bit for you. Of the 75 things that went across your screen, we’ve picked 12 that are all memorable and all really matter — against a narrative outcome that you know about but didn’t know why it happened.
Longform narrative is a dot-connecting exercise, but it’s more than just connecting them. It’s which ones are you connecting, and what are you revealing about them. Even if you saw the event, it wasn’t in context. You saw it in its own terms — which is a little bit of the trick that Trump does. He’s moving it all so fast that there’s no context for anything that’s happening, so you forget the outrageousness or the importance of what just happened because you’ve moved on to the next thing.
In the moving target that is the media right now, what is real and how do you decide what is real? Because even the outcomes can get smeared, it’s moving so fast.
Where do you start?
I pick a character rather than an event. Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, David Axelrod, Barack Obama, Hank Paulson. You pick somebody in the middle of a crisis, and you say, “I’m going to stay with him.”
It’s amazing how much people were willing to tell you.
Sometimes it surprises even me. We just start talking about it, and many people in the middle of an interview will look at me and say, “You know, I never said that before. … I never really thought about it in that context.” With somebody like Donald Trump, it might be fun to interview him, but I don’t think I’d get anything that I really want. His method of communicating to the press primarily is the tweets. He doesn’t go into a room and take our questions. If you’re a reporter or a journalistic institution, how do you keep track of that?
How do you?
I don’t go to the circus while it’s in town, you know? I go to the circus after the acts are done, and I look around at what’s on the floor and what’s in the ashtrays.
How do you, as a member of the “elite” media, cross the divide you’re illuminating?
I grew up in Idaho. I know what it’s like to be out there, and I try to think about them when I make the films. I think for a lot of people the world is mystifying and terrifying. A lot of what was going on with the anti-Hillary stuff was that a lot of people were afraid of her. [Trump] played on that, man. He’s really good at that.
“Divided States” concludes that Obama’s vision was politically naïve. What happened?
It’s a little easier to do with the distance of eight years. But while Barack Obama was having a lot of trouble in the first two years of his presidency, the Republican party was setting the stage through what started with Sarah Palin — setting the stage to devour itself, and stop him. I hadn’t understood the Republican side of it. I just thought of it as one-dimensional — and then I said, “Whoa, wait, watch. Palin has lit a fire in the country that nobody knows about.”
At least, we didn’t see it. Obama certainly didn’t see it. And I don’t know that he saw the racial dimension as being quite as determinative as it was. Through a lot of that, the people I’ve talked to who were around him, they were hopeful — they believed in a kind of transformative mandate, and that he was such a transformative character that all would be well.
I made “The Choice” in 2008 and 2012, and in that process, I had a really clear-eyed understanding of who Barack Obama was, and who he wasn’t. And I kept saying to friends and everyone else who were thrilled that he was elected: “Yes, but this is a much more conservative, much more careful man than you think, than your prejudices are implying he will be.” And that turned out to be true as well. He was somebody that was available for you to project onto him your own hopes and aspirations — but the reality of Washington, and the forces he was going to confront, were very different than most people saw. We saw that early, we started to say there’s more to his ineffectiveness than even just race. It’s something else. And I don’t know that he knows it.
What are your thoughts on today’s media climate?
I’m afraid institutions on the left may take a page out of what the right and the alt-right are doing and saying, “Okay, well I’m going to do that too because that’s what I have to do to compete in this marketplace.” That would be too bad. If that’s a trend and if that’s a move, it wouldn’t surprise me, but it would make me sad.
I don’t know — what do you do about fake news? How do you know it? How do you identify it? The number of people who say things to me that I know are patently absurd that they’ve read about — how do you say, “Wherever you got that, whatever makes you believe that, I’m sorry that that’s what you believe. My life experience, if it counts for anything, it’s that I should be able to tell you, ‘I don’t believe that.’ It doesn’t ring true.”
But people don’t want to hear that. They’re living in some other frame of mind that I think largely comes from being lied to. I mean, if politicians are going to be the way they’ve been and the institutions have failed people, no wonder people don’t trust them — and are afraid of them, and feel left behind and forgotten. In some ways, it’s a measure of how inadequate major market media have been or have become, that people don’t trust them. The only way we can ever clean any of that up is keep being serious about what we’re actually doing, instead of pandering or chasing through tweets for whatever Donald says is true.
I believe one of the things that’s going to happen over the next few years, I hope, is a shift in the places where you can practice real journalism. I hope it happens. There are ways to perform what we do that are, I think, substantial and important and necessary. There’s a lot of people who’d like to be like me, and if they could find institutions that welcomed it and nurtured it, they could be.