Even back in the late '60s before "Nightline," "Frontline" or CNN, it was obvious television was the news medium of the future. Not the medium of record, because video is lousy at relaying the essential details of public affairs--the dates, the names, the watershed legislation and the landmark court decisions. But when it comes to emotive power, the ability to make people sit up and notice, and take sides, it's moving pictures that move the public.
So I became a student of the television documentary. Even took up the subject in a graduate course or two. My heroes were writer-producers like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Reuven Frank and Bill Moyers. But the guy who took my breath away--the guy I wanted to be when I grew up--was Frederick Wiseman.
Wiseman pioneered a documentary technique, since used to great effect by others (notably the makers of "Hoop Dreams," a study of inner-city basketball recruiting) of letting the subject tell his own story. His documentaries have no script, no narration, and to a large extent, no beginning or end. Instead, Wiseman sends his cameras into a situation or institution--a high school, a welfare office, a monastery--and has his lensmen shoot hour after hour, day after day, of business as usual. He then edits out 95 percent of the footage, distilling to feature length the essential truths of the place.