Even as Ann Arbor bustled with the excitement of one of the first warm Friday nights of the year, journalism students and PBS viewers alike logged on to the virtual Penny Stamps Distinguished Speakers Series event at 8 p.m., featuring Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of the Public Broadcasting Station’s investigative series, “FRONTLINE.”
While the Penny Stamps lecture series includes a range of “respected leaders and innovators from a broad spectrum of creative fields,” this one piqued my interest as it covered news and media. Excited by the prospect of hearing from one of the most active leading voices in the world of journalism today, I tuned in to this conversation and profile eager to learn.
Aronson-Rath was joined by Lynette Clemetson, journalist and director of Wallace House, which “works to sustain and elevate the careers of journalists, foster civic engagement, and uphold the role of a free press in democratic society.” Clemetson prefaced the conversation by praising the show’s in-depth approach to investigative films and introducing Aronson-Rath as a focused and mission-oriented journalist and executive.
Aronson-Rath herself had a grounding, humble presence that was palpable even in a virtual environment. Extremely intelligent and articulate, she spoke about her experiences openly and sincerely and always in a way that was accessible even to those not well-versed in the details of public news media. She sat in a study with piles of books and an Emmy Award displayed behind her, but never directly referenced any of her own accolades without being prompted by Clemetson.
The two began by showing a trailer for the series “FRONTLINE,” which publishes over 20 long-form, investigative journalism films every year. While the series began in 1983, Aronson-Rath’s tenure as executive producer has seen the program win every major broadcast journalism award, as well as managing collaborations with The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica, The New York Times, National Public Radio and Univision.
Aronson-Rath has also launched initiatives to improve the show’s transparency, diversity and accountability efforts in recent releases like “A Thousand Cuts” and “Death Is Our Business,” working to distinguish today’s “FRONTLINE” from the white, male journalistic gaze of earlier seasons. Importantly, the films can be streamed for free by anyone, either on the PBS website or YouTube. Aronson-Rath remarked that it is extraordinary how the viewership for these long-form news stories has grown online, specifically with a younger generation that might be expected to consume only quick, clickbait type journalism.
“It occurred to me that the streaming environment that we’re publishing into … is actually made for the long-form documentary,” Aronson-Rath said. “It’s more important to be in these environments with serious work, and you know the audience has reacted in droves. We have millions of new viewers … we’re giving them something that feels real, that feels authentic and doesn’t feel like our thumb is on the scale.”
Next, they dove right into talking about what has been an undeniably chaotic, challenging and deeply emotional year in journalism. The hatred and violence we see whenever we get a news alert has certainly been taxing on news consumers, but I had never considered the toll that a year in news like this has had on the actual media professionals.
Aronson-Rath explained how “FRONTLINE” had to make significant choices in how to portray COVID-19, election politics, racial justice protests and, as they say, “a lot of misinformation.” She explained that her mission is to respond to these crises in the most authentic way, while also being additive to the conversation.
For example, after a summer defined by nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and police reforms (or abolition), “FRONTLINE” released a film called “Policing the Police 2020” on Sept. 15. Aronson-Rath explained that while there was an abundance of coverage of the protests, the “FRONTLINE” staff decided they could add something by sending Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker writer and historian, back to the same police department he had studied in 2016 to talk about reforms amid the public outcry that followed the murder of George Floyd.
The obvious friendship and mutual respect between Aronson-Rath and Clemetson was heartwarming. When Aronson-Rath was first introduced, she warmly acknowledged that any hour spent with Clemetson is treasured, and the two proceeded to pepper in compliments and short anecdotes about each other throughout the rest of the conversation.
Toward the end of the event, the two had a candid, thoughtful conversation about their experiences as high-level female executives in the male-dominated field of investigative journalism. Aronson-Rath explained that she never realized her first name, Raney, isn’t gender-specific until she started arriving at meetings where people assumed that she must be the secretary or assistant. The first time this happened, she remembered, she was very taken aback. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, she added that it happens so often now that she has a prepared response and then quickly moves on from it.
Clemetson added that she appreciates how Aronson-Rath brings leadership into rooms where the two of them haven’t always been allowed a seat at the table. Aronson-Rath even touched on how the professional friendships she maintains with other women in leadership are incredibly important, not just for her personal and career growth, but also for her own sustainability as a person.
As for the future of “FRONTLINE,” Aronson-Rath has no shortage of aspirations and action plans. Most importantly, she prioritizes the significance of sustaining public media, or as she puts it, “making sure there is still a station system that supports serious journalism that’s not commercial.” This media environment should not just be focused on news, but also on education. She plans to be a part of making sure that public media is ethical, public-facing and deeply entrenched in the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion.
She concluded the event with the thought that she is “most focused on how we can all move forward together.”
Anyone can access both past recordings and upcoming live streams of events in The Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series, including this conversation with Raney Aronson-Rath, on the Penny Stamps event page
Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.