Crossing the news barrier
Producer Charlie Ebersol gave an unusual assignment to the camera crews that worked on NBC’s “The Wanted,” a novel news series that tracks down accused terrorists and war criminals.
Before shooting material for the program, crew members had to watch “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” and figure out how to re-create that slick cinematic style.
“Bourne” director Paul Greengrass would “probably accuse me of homage,” Ebersol said with a laugh.
The young producer is unapologetic about infusing entertainment into “The Wanted,” in which journalist Adam Ciralsky leads a team searching for purported terrorists living openly in the U.S. and Europe. The show, a co-production with NBC News, premieres at 10 tonight.
“I will face criticism for what my show looks like, but my belief is kids my age want to see production value,” said Ebersol, the 26-year-old son of NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol. “You tell me if they’re going to watch Charlie Gibson at 10 o’clock on Monday or my show?
“We don’t do it at the cost of the news. In a lot of cases, we’re more honest than an average news show because we pull back the barrier.”
The program features Ciralsky, counterterrorism expert Roger Carstens, former Navy Seal Scott Tyler and former international war crimes prosecutor David Crane on a self-appointed mission to expose terrorists who have evaded prosecution.
The show opens in a mock situation room as team members discuss their first target: Mullah Krekar, the founder of Ansar al Islam, an extremist group with ties to Al Qaeda. Krekar is living freely in Norway, even though the Norwegian Supreme Court ordered him returned to Iraq. Norwegian officials say that under international law, they cannot extradite Krekar until they are certain he will not be executed or tortured.
“The Wanted” team spends little time examining the case’s legal intricacies. Instead, they’re focused on what they repeatedly refer to as their “mission,” setting off on a manhunt that takes them to Oslo and Sulaimaniyah, Iraq. The action is filmed with quick cutaways and jerky motion. Interview subjects are shot partly obscured, as if the camera were eavesdropping, and ominous music pulsates in the background.
“We want it to look and feel like a Friday night movie, but we are held by the standards of news,” Ebersol said.
But some media ethicists question such dramatic flourishes in a news program.
“If you’ve got a journalist who is essentially playing the role of an action-adventure figure, if it looks like a post-9/11 ‘A-Team,’ then you would be further stretching the already flexible boundaries between journalism and entertainment,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, who has not seen the show.
“There have to be some traditional journalistic values. And journalists pay fealty to getting the sequence of things correct, of not manipulating fact for effect.”
NBC News officials insist the program adheres to news standards. David Corvo, executive producer of “Dateline” and vice president of the news division, compared the mock situation room -- which was scripted and shot on a sound stage -- to a reporter’s stand-up.
“It’s certainly out of the comfort zone of a traditional news program,” he said of “The Wanted’s” approach. “But to me it was an interesting way to grab people’s attention.”
“I wouldn’t do ‘Dateline’ that way. It’s just not our training and not our style. But I think it has value.”
In one of the premiere episode’s most dramatic moments, Ciralsky rushes from Iraq to Norway with a letter from a Kurdish counter-terrorism official promising that Krekar will not be mistreated if he is handed over. The letter does little to convince a Norwegian immigration official, who says the Iraqis have yet to provide them directly with such assurances.
“This is ridiculous,” a disgusted Crane says. “I have never seen such a two-step in my life.”
Norwegian officials said privately that they were surprised that producers of a television show believed they could solve what has long been a thorny issue for the country. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a copy of the letter on its website, noting that it was not even from the Iraqi central government.
“The document does not provide any diplomatic guarantee against abuse or against the implementation of a death sentence against Mullah Krekar,” the ministry said in a statement Sunday.
“The Wanted” was the brainchild of Ebersol and Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who now works as an NBC producer. The program was greenlighted by NBC News President Steve Capus, who began discussing it with them 18 months ago.
But the network is taking a cautious approach to the show, which has been compared to its controversial “To Catch a Predator” series, in which “Dateline” correspondent Chris Hansen ambushed alleged sexual predators on-camera. So far, NBC plans to air just two of the six episodes of “The Wanted” that have been produced.
“I’m aware that it’s unorthodox, and we’ll have to see if it has traction,” Corvo said.
He rejected the notion that the series ventures into vigilantism, a charge also levied against “Predator.” “They’re not really affecting any outcome,” he said of the “Wanted” team. “The criticism seems to be that they’re acting as agents of the government, but they’re not doing that.”
Ebersol said the team works parallel to government agencies and tries not to interfere with any ongoing investigations.
Officials at the departments of State and Homeland Security did not return calls for comment.
“We’re not slapping handcuffs on anybody,” said Ebersol. But he acknowledged that the program challenges the idea of how much journalists should become part of the story they’re covering.
“I want people to question whether it’s good for news to insert itself,” he said. “I think the traditional news side of the world is going to have a reaction to this.”