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From AJR,   October/November 2003

Independentsí Day   

By Lucinda Fleeson
Lucinda Fleeson is director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland. She has trained journalists in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America and, most recently, Sri Lanka, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Her training manual for teaching investigative reporting in developing democracies has been published in 18 languages by the International Center for Journalists.     

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An interview with the leader of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in his jungle training camp seemed made for television.

But it wasn't a network television reporter who got the scoop. It was Margarita Dragon, an assistant producer for an independent production company. Home to visit her family in the Philippines, she hiked into the mountains of Mindanao, carrying a Sony PD-150 digicam to meet the leader of the militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front. When she returned to New York and showed what she had to her bosses at Rain Media, they were so impressed that they sent her back with a crew to produce a segment for a new PBS show, "FRONTLINE/World."

On camera, a guerrilla trained recruits and vowed to establish Islamic rule. "I will die rather than give up!" he cried.

The segment aired in June, exemplifying the kind of report that American journalism has collectively said it should have been doing before September 11. But today this kind of work consists largely of sporadic ventures by independent documentary-makers--mostly aired by PBS.

The cost of these reports is about as barebones as television can get. Producing an hour of "FRONTLINE/World" costs about $200,000. But a documentary hour on the networks during prime time costs about $1.2 million.

But even that spartan budget depends on the kindness of strangers. "FRONTLINE/World" exists thanks to grants from PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Swedish-Swiss conglomerate ABB Ltd., the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the KQED Signal Society.

Often the stories include the journalist's journey and his or her own first-person remarks. "We wanted to make the journalistic process more transparent, more real," explains "FRONTLINE/World" executive Sharon Tiller. "People are tired of the overproduced network presentation."

Other "FRONTLINE/World" stories include a report from Sri Lanka in which independent videojournalist Joe Rubin filmed the aftermath of a suicide bombing and attempted assassination of the prime minister. Rubin then went back for footage of people who came out to paint flowers on the pavement with messages of peace. Painters included the wife and child of one of the explosion's victims. It was a poignant report from a bubbling trouble spot--and only possible due to a double dose of philanthropy. He shot the film while on a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism.