The PBS FRONTLINE team behind “Trump’s Trade War” shared the story behind their reporting during the Overseas Press Club’s recent webinar. The virtual event was created to celebrate the documentary which won the organization’s 2019 Morton Frank Award for best international business news reporting.
Jane Sasseen, the founding executive director of the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the City University of New York, who was on the jury for the award, moderated the event with writer-director Rick Young and his colleagues: reporter and co-producer Emma Schwartz; reporter and correspondent Laura Sullivan; and reporter and editor Fritz Kramer.
Young said they initially sought to report on the trade war to understand the significance of these tariffs to businesses and people, and to get a window into the complex relationship between the United States and China.
“It’s hard to figure out what this all means and whether it’s a smart thing to be doing or not be doing,” he said.
He shared the trajectory of their reporting process, which took them from interviewing steel mill workers in Middletown, Ohio, to tech executives in Silicon Valley, and eventually led them to government and business officials in China.
NPR’s Sullivan, who was the correspondent for the documentary, said she was struck by how executive decisions made by government officials had devastating impacts on individual workers in the American steel industry.
“Even the folks that we were meeting on the ground in Ohio benefit from cheap prices,” Sullivan said. “And at the same time, [the trade war] is affecting their ability to get up in the morning and go to work.”
In addition to explaining some of the intricacies of their research, team members detailed some of the logistical challenges they faced, including scheduling an interview with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon; securing their visas the day before their flight; and conducting a key interview with China’s vice minister of commerce after 22 hours of travel.
“Getting a crew of six into China with a couple hundred thousand dollars of equipment is no easy task,” Kramer said.
Young said that the team had taken precautions such as having co-producer Kramer backup terabytes of footage on multiple media in case of theft or if they had to quickly flee the country.
“The trick in this is to try and be as organized and planned as you can, and plan for chaos.” Young said.
To watch the hour-long webinar:
To watch the full PBS program and to learn more: