FRONTLINE will present THE CHOICE 2020 on PBS, Tuesday September 22. The two-hour program is an exploration of the backgrounds, shaping forces and leadership styles of U.S. presidential candidates President Donald J. Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden.
Michael Kirk, who has received sixteen Emmy Awards (and many more nominations) for his work as a producer, director, writer, and telejournalist, has been with FRONTLINE since its inception. As part of PBS’s portion of this summer’s virtual Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, he gives Assignment X an exclusive interview about his work with FRONTLINE and THE CHOICE 2020.
ASSIGNMENT X: You are a frequent FRONTLINE contributor, but you’re not the sole contributor?
MICHAEL KIRK: I’m certainly not. I’m not in charge of the show, or have anything to do with how it operates.
AX: Does FRONTLINE come to you and say, “We want a show about this topic,” or do you pitch the topic to them?
KIRK: It’s a little bit of both. I was there at the very creation of the series. I was the first senior producer, back in 1981. I have my own production company, Kirk Documentary Group, but for five or six years, I was the senior producer, and I’ve always had a variable contract for a certain number of FRONTLINES every year. My beat tends to be Washington [D.C.], the White House, national security, sometimes the State Department, the military for sure, C.I.A., that’s my territory. I live in Washington, I work Washington, on the big, epic political and military stories. And then it’s just a matter of, “What do you want to do now, and what’s next?” And I have ideas, and they have ideas. It’s like the NEW YORKER or a magazine. You can be assigned, and somebody could say, “We think you should do something about torture,” and I could say, “Yeah, I know that story, I’ve got some sources,” or I don’t, and I’ll go out and see whether I can do it or not. So it’s a back and forth all the time. But I do have a regular deal to make a certain number of hours every year.
AX: Did you come into doing the political and military and intelligence community reporting because that was that where the work led you, or was that where your particular interests led you?
KIRK: Again, it’s both of those things. I really am mostly a character-driven, narrative kind of person. I look for a main character, and I look for a story that can be built around that character. Steve Bannon, for example. [In Kirk’s FRONTLINE documentary UNITED STATES OF CONSPIRACY, which originally aired July 28] Alex Jones. Obviously, I make the television program every four years called THE CHOICE, and that’s the two presidential candidates’ biographies. I’m a journalist/biographer, very interested in characters. And if you want to do character studies in the Federal government, the White House, the military, the State Department, those places are the places to be where there’s a big character involved in earth-shaking events. That’s the territory I like to be in. Once in a while, I’ll venture out into the world. I did a big film about Vladimir Putin a few years ago, Bibi Netanyahu a few years ago. But generally speaking, it’s Washington that has my interest, and that I’m pretty well sourced in.
AX: Is it always you asking the questions in your FRONTLINE interviews?
KIRK: Not always. In the beginning, it is for almost all the major interviews, because I need to get in my head what’s working in the narrative. So I probably in the beginning did twenty-four or twenty-five interviews. There are two field producers/reporters who are the people who go out and convince people to do the interviews. They work on the logistics of doing an interview with somebody, and especially later in the process. I rarely do [interviews] once I’m buried in the writing and the editing. In this case, Gabrielle Schonder, who is handling the Trump story, and Jim Gilmore, who’s handling the Biden story, are both very experienced reporters and producers who can also do it, and by then, they’ve listened to me do all of the other interviews, so they know the story elements that we’re looking for. We talk about it all the time.
AX: Whose voice are we hearing for the narration?
KIRK: Will Lyman. He lives in Boston, as do I, we’ve known each other a long, long time, he is the voice of FRONTLINE, and has been since the very beginning.
AX: With THE CHOICE, the subject matter is obviously the presidential candidates. For other FRONTLINE projects, how do you decide what stories are big enough to warrant coverage?
KIRK: There are so many things that matter. The first threshold is, is it an issue, or a story, that helps people understand a policy issue? So that when they vote, when they make decisions about who to vote for, it will inform them, so that they can be an informed citizen. That’s the basic, fundamental first step of, “Is this a FRONTLINE?” I think a definition is on a line that gets bent once in a while. It [could be] a great cultural story about lifestyle in one form or another, but not very often. It’s more often a verité film [where] we live in a situation. You go into a hospital in Syria, and you’re there with the doctor for a year in the war in Syria. Or is it an investigation of torture, or something like that? Is it a film I made, a big TikTok connect the dots epic current affairs documentary? Or are they observed, old school-style documentaries? So there’s a variety. And it really is the form adapting to a story everybody needs to know about. I think that’s the standard that FRONTLINE applies.
AX: Does the documentary ever depend on, “Can we get people to talk to us? Can we get footage verifying what we’re talking about?”
KIRK: Always. It’s TV. You think about, “Is it really important to people, do people need to know about it, how can we tell it?” And there are lots of different ways to tell a story. If you don’t get a lot of people to agree [to appear on camera], you can use documents, you can use historical footage, you can use old films that other people have said things in, and hook it together. One of the primary things that can stop the story from being made is, you can’t find anybody who can talk about it, or really knows anything about it. You can always find people with opinions, but the standard is, it’s got to be somebody who knows, either reported on it themselves, or has written a book about it, or been their primary source, or it’s been happening to them.
AX: Once you’ve got your material, do you have a particular way that you like to organize the storytelling? Or does it depend on what story you are telling?
KIRK: Yeah, it depends on everything. It depends on who you have, if you have something interesting to start the scene with. In THE CHOICE, you have eight sequences, they’re really story events. Inside those story events, there are three to five scenes of one or two minutes’ duration. The ongoing storytelling structure is kind of uniform across the world, and across the business. How do you tell a story on film or video? You learn how to do that, and then you learn what you need to do that, and you go out, and you get interviews, still photos, and video, and what you shoot yourself. So it’s a fairly standard process, but like cooking. There are people who are really good cooks when they have garlic, butter, water, potatoes, and some people can make a pretty good meal out of that, and other people just make it straightforwardly. But the ingredients are all the same for everybody.
AX: In UNITED STATES OF CONSPIRACY, you used the words “unhinged” and “dangerous” about Alex Jones. But you seemed to say you will be taking a more measured tone with the White House. Is that because you don’t believe you don’t believe Donald Trump is dangerous, or …?
KIRK: Maybe. The jury’s out. I don’t know. I understand your question. How can we say it for Alex Jones, and not say it for Donald Trump? It’s a question of degree, dimension, what you feel comfortable reporting, how you do it, whether there’s ample evidence right in front of you to say it. And in the end, we’ll see what happens with Donald Trump, and how it goes. My preference would almost always be to quote somebody who has standing and evidence.
AX: So you’re hoping somebody else says it?
KIRK: Well, that’s the standard. It should be somebody else. It shouldn’t be me, if I can possibly avoid it. In some cases, you need to, because, let’s say, in Alex’s case, you need to make clear to the viewer what they’ve just seen, or who they’re meeting, or what they’re seeing, is reputationally and at that moment palpable. And it’s clear – he’s screaming, he’s crying, he’s doing things that are right there on the screen, for you to decide. Whether we’ll have those exact moments, or moments like them for Donald Trump, I don’t [as of when this interview was conducted, in July 2020] have any of those moments yet, but I don’t know.
AX: Journalists, especially political journalists, are meant to report impartially, but more now than at any time than I’ve been aware of, people seem to feel that the journalism trying to show both sides as being similar has created a dangerous false equivalency. How much do you feel you need to be equivalent in depicting both sides?
KIRK: I’m being semantic about this, but I believe in a kind of fairness. I certainly don’t believe in false equivalency. What I believe in is trying to tell the story with sobriety, being as straightforward as possible, and letting the facts, or what others say or have done, speak for themselves. So in no case would I let somebody off the hook, or roast somebody just because I wanted to, or felt like I needed to balance out Biden, because I roasted him, therefore I need to roast Trump. I don’t think like that. I just try to tell good and thoughtful stories, and I try to line them up in a way that gives people the information they need to make decisions about voting, or feel good about the decisions that they’re making, or challenge their understanding of a candidate they may love.
But there’s never any imperative, either from myself or the journalism world I live in, which says that [there must be] false equivalence, or even equal time. [On FRONTLINE], we try to land it roughly so that there’s eight sequences in the film, and they’re each about seven minutes, for each candidate. That works out pretty nicely. Sometimes it’s a little bit longer for one or the other, but it won’t vary by twenty extra minutes for Trump or Biden. We would never do anything like that, because the story leans on the two story marks, it requires you to keep moving at about the same pace. And the ethical, the journalistic, the big idea question – I’m not that guy. I’m not an equivalence guy, and nobody would ever say that at FRONTLINE to me – “Where’s the equivalent side of that?” They would say, “That story’s not interesting,” or “That story doesn’t seem to make its point,” or whatever it is, but it would never be [about equivalence].
“I’ve got a really good story about somebody, and here’s what he did, and here’s what he didn’t do, here’s where the problem lies. Here’s what it reveals about him. Here’s another story of another guy, taken with equal tongue-in-cheek, or skepticism, or a level of storytelling.” This is a really good part of the story of creating the composite view of who this person is, and if one turns out to be not so flattering in the eyes of some people, it maybe makes some people like him. There are classic examples of this all the time.
AX: Many people are saying this is an election unlike any other. Do you agree with that?
KIRK: I think it is a very important election. I’ve been doing this a long time. In my lifetime, the country has never been more divided. At least, it doesn’t feel like it’s ever been more divided than it is now. It seems that people are on separate sides now in a way that they haven’t been before. I made a four-hour film in January called AMERICA’S GREAT DIVIDE that’s all about this. So yes, I think to go to the ballot box now to elect a President of the United States in a deeply divided nation, at the same time that we face a devastating pandemic, and a really profound and maybe a long-awaited racial reckoning in the country, those things are huge, historical events that people will think and talk about for a long time, and I’m not even talking about the economic collapse that’s happening, or where we stand in the world, or the crises in various parts of the world, both because of the pandemic and other things that are just coming, and let’s not forget climate change.
I don’t remember a time when so many things felt so precipitous as they feel right now. So, in the middle of all of that, you put a presidential election. So how are we going to know what we know? And how are we going to vote? Are we going to vote by mail? Are we going to trust that? Are we going to vote by computer? Do we trust that? We know from 2016 about the Russian incursion, and the failure and power of social media. That’s all ramped up to a fare-thee-well in this election. So yeah, I’d say it’s momentous, for sure. Is it the most momentous? I don’t know. But it’s certainly a very, very, very, very important time.
AX: Do you have any other projects coming up that we should know about?
KIRK: No. But four hours in January, then CONSPIRACY in July, and the two-hour CHOICE about one of the most important elections in a long, long time is plenty to do in one year [laughs]. Some of it depends on who wins. If it’s a Biden presidency, it’s a certain kind of films we’ll do, and if it’s a continuation of the Trump presidency, it’s a different kind of films we’ll do. We’ll wait and see what happens. We have the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 coming next year, and there are certainly things to be said about what happened in the two decades since then.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about FRONTLINE: THE CHOICE 2020?
KIRK: I think we’ve talked about it. I think, if it is true that about eighty percent of the American people, or even ninety percent, have made their minds up one way or the other by the time late September rolls around, this is a program designed to make you feel comfortable with your decision, or question your decision, and if you’re on the fence, it may be essential viewing. My aspiration is to make it essential viewing for people right around that time, if they’re paying as close attention as possible. Because I do believe personality is destiny. And if I could tell you who the candidates are, and where they come from, and how they’ve acted in the past, and how they’re likely to act in the future, I think that could be very useful for people who are contemplating whatever their vote is.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with producer Michael Kirk on new PBS documentary FRONTLINE: THE CHOICE 2020