If Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee hadn’t followed their guide across a frozen river separating China and North Korea on a fateful morning in March, their story about human trafficking in the region would have likely drawn modest attention.
Instead, Ling and Lee were captured by North Korean soldiers, creating an international incident that threw the work of their scrappy documentary unit into limbo and brought newfound attention to their program’s brand of often-risky investigative journalism.
The cable channel’s third season of “Vanguard” was delayed as the team labored to finish pieces without Ling, the program’s vice president. For the group of tightly knit correspondents, all in their early 30s, the absence of their colleagues was agonizing. They obsessively monitored reports from North Korea, tracking such details as the weather in Pyongyang, and weeping together in their Hollywood office when the two women were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
“It has been a very trying year,” Adam Yamaguchi, the show’s senior international correspondent, said during an interview Monday in the network’s Manhattan office. “A lot of people asked, ‘Is “Vanguard” coming back? Does this change what you guys are going to do?’ If anything, it really sort of solidified our mission.”
Tonight, a new season of “Vanguard” debuts on Current for the first time since the detention of Ling and Lee, who were freed in August with the help of former President Clinton. In the premiere episode, correspondent Mariana van Zeller uses a hidden camera to investigate pain management clinics in Florida that supply OxyContin and other prescription drugs to addicts from around the country. At one point, her car is menacingly followed by an SUV registered to the owner of the clinic she was watching. Van Zeller calls the police, who pull the driver over.
The scene is typical of the kind of journalism-as-adventure offered up in “Vanguard,” in which correspondents use hand-held cameras and the informal language of a travelogue to document complex subjects such as drug trafficking, global warming and civil war. The reporters stress that they don’t seek danger. But the capture of Ling and Lee put a spotlight on the dangerous areas where they venture and prompted internal reassessments of the risks they take.
“We’ve recommitted ourselves to checking with each other more frequently and making a better effort to consult on risk-taking in the field, because the Monday morning quarterback answer is, we could have avoided it,” said David Neuman, Current’s president of programming. “Looking back at it, for the purpose of telling the story well, it was not a prudent risk to take.”
But Neuman stressed that the network remains firmly behind “Vanguard,” which this season explores illegal oil distilleries in the Cambodian jungle, the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the European cocaine trade.
“Our commitment to what they’re trying to do is greater than ever, regardless of what transpired at the North Korean border,” he said.
The program is now the best-known offering of Current, co-founded four years ago by former Vice President Al Gore as a youth-aimed platform for user-generated content. There are no ratings available yet for the channel, which just began sample measurements with Nielsen in August.
The detention of Ling and Lee was a seismic event for “Vanguard’s” 15 staff members, who had bonded in the field and during evenings playing Rock Band at Ling’s home.
“The hard part was just the not knowing on a day-to-day basis,” said Yamaguchi, 31, who came to Current after covering breaking news around the world for a Japanese network. “I had my Google Alert, and every time a new article would come in, I’d just brace myself, ‘Oh, what’s next?’ ”
Their anxiety was compounded by the fact that the network, upon the advice of Gore, who was working to secure the women’s release, instructed the staff not to comment on the situation.
“It was terrible, because we were being criticized for not speaking,” said Van Zeller, 33, a Portuguese-born journalist who freelanced for PBS’ “Frontline” and Britain’s Channel 4 before joining the team. “It really hurt. The reason why we were keeping silent is because we truly believed it was the fastest way to get them back.”
When they finally saw television footage of Ling and Lee boarding a private plane in North Korea to come home, members of the “Vanguard” team erupted in joyful relief. “Everybody came around the screen and was jumping up and down and yelling and screaming and crying,” Van Zeller recalled.
Since then, the two women have been spending time with their families and working through the trauma of their imprisonment, though both plan to return to work, Neuman said, adding that the network will give them as much time as they need to recover.
Eventually, he said, “Vanguard” hopes to air its own story about what happened in North Korea. He declined to say whether the team had managed to retain any of its footage.
In a video introducing the first season posted on current .com, Ling does not address her detention, but stresses the mission of the program.
“We at ‘Vanguard’ believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places,” she said. “Trying to do this can be risky, emotional and difficult. But leaving such issues ignored can be even more detrimental to us as a society.”