Those Crazy Rockdale Kids
Did Frontline exploit the teens of Conyers, Georgia?

Teens having group sex, doing drugs, getting into fights, spreading infectious diseases, and shooting one another. It's a compelling set of issues, and just about any journalism outfit would slobber at a chance to cover the story, especially when it all comes wrapped up in the tidy package of a single town. For PBS and its flagship news feature series, Frontline, just such an opportunity presented itself in Conyers, Georgia, and the surrounding community of Rockdale County.

See also...
... by Jeff Diehl
... in the Scope section
... from October 26, 1999

The 90-minute documentary, titled "The Lost Children of Rockdale County," netted WGTV in Atlanta the highest viewership total for any show since the 1990 Ken Burns eight-part documentary, "The Civil War." It has sparked a ground-swell of debate and dialogue around the country, by parents, children, and plain old scandal-seekers.

Frontline really hit on a winner with this story. But what was the cost of PBS's probing and prescient efforts in Rockdale?

Frontline was initially responding to an outbreak of syphilis, which had been recorded in 1996, one which was incredibly robust and occurred in an atypical segment of the community -- namely, white middle class youths. Then, a month after the Columbine mess, while Frontline was collecting footage for the syphilis story, there was a shooting at Heritage High, where the kids they were profiling went to school.

Lights, Camera, Shoot!

"When I heard about it, was just minutes after it happened," says co-producer Barak Goodman in an interview on the PBS Web site. "We went running over there. We were basically the first or second crew there. There ended up being hundreds of crews, but we were right there just after it happened."

The Frontline crew had good reason to sense an eerie synchronicity. Co-producer Rachel Dretzin Goodman mentions an exchange that occurred before the Heritage shooting: "I had several conversations with our cameraman, people in our crew, about how striking the similarities were between the community in which Columbine High School is and our community in Conyers. And how the same forces that people were talking about in Columbine had existed very clearly in Conyers. And we even made a couple of cracks, 'God it's amazing... We're lucky it didn't happen in Conyers.' It was that close. So when it did happen in Conyers, we collectively shuddered. It was kind of amazing that after the conversations we had -- that it actually, of all the communities in the country, it happened there."

In a May 21st Associated Press article, Richard Gelles, professor of child welfare and family violence at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted commenting on the shooter's likely desire to get attention. "He knew he would get it," he said. This had to be especially true in a town that was, in the weeks preceding the shooting, being courted not only by Frontline, but also by CBS' 48 Hours.

At no point in the show do the Goodmans bring out the possibility that Frontline TV crews and cameras might have been a motivating factor in the shooting at Heritage. And yet, the producers are very sensitive to the fact that the children of Conyers and Heritage, like most teens, crave the attention they are denied by parents and community. What about the kids who, like the shooter, saw all the cameras and hooplah but weren't being interviewed by the TV crew? Wouldn't it be natural for them to wonder, "Why do those kids get all the media attention? What makes them so special?"

That the program doesn't acknowledge any possible connection between the presence of their cameras and this shooting is suspect. Either the producers were too sanctimonious to even allow that possibility to enter their conscious minds, or they wanted to hide it so they could fully exploit the teens and their neglect without facing any criticism, all along showing how spot-on they were to profile Rockdale County to begin with.

Frontline is a traditional media outlet with a strong sense of civic relevance. And they do great stuff on a consistent basis. They did great work in Conyers -- except when they didn't.

Don't Rock the Rockdale Boat

The producers, Barak and Rachel Dretzin Goodman, talk at length on the PBS Web site about how concerned they were about the possible negative effects of their coverage on the children's lives (in the form of stigma after showing their faces to the cameras). But they also blow a lot of wind about the "importance" of what they were covering, about how they were a force for positive change within the families, as though the desire to exploit a steamy, sensationalistic story was never a factor.

They posted the following from a review by The Atlanta Constitution on the site: "[T]he overall effect is so disturbing it's as hard to imagine parents not rushing afterward to talk with their teens as it is hard to imagine their teens not talking back."

But a lot of the questions asked by the Goodmans were trite, safe, and in some cases, misleading. They succeeded in infiltrating the community, but it's clear that they did so only by projecting a willingness to conform to the community's mores, as opposed to challenging them. That would have been risky. If the producers had alienated the community, it would have made their job more difficult. It seems like they were more concerned with getting lots of juicy material than with exploring the causes in depth.

Most astonishingly, the program does not even consider whether the fundamentalist Christianity that dominates Rockdale might have impacted negatively on the youths. Indeed, the religious activities are presented primarily as a positive force, balancing out the kids' hedonistic and self-destructive tendencies.

Could it be that Rockdale County's fundamentalist emphasis on virginity and abstinence for teens -- this culture of extreme moralistic sexual repression -- might have created its opposite? Did sexual puritanism create a teenage rebellion into dangerous sex? We don't know because Frontline doesn't examine the possibility. The Goodmans choose instead to stick to the pat assumptions that most TV viewers would easily relate to. Did they do this to ensure that the show would have a more sensational, emotional impact on more people?

Sticking closely to mainstream mores, the show presents the girls' sexual activities as a source of shame; in interviews the young women are led away from any suggestion that they enjoyed the sex as much as the boys did. Remember that the kids in the show are being interviewed years after the activities took place -- plenty of time for shame to be dished upon them by their peers, their parents, and their religion. This isn't to say that, in the moment, the girls weren't just as excited and aggressive as the boys. In fact, there are hints of this when the girls mention "curiosity" as a big factor, but that line is not rigorously pursued by the Goodmans.

Sanctimonious Media

Can it be honestly denied -- after OJ, Lewinsky, and Drudge -- that the news media are just another form of entertainment, contributing to the collective tickling of the masses' erogenous zones? If not, then it should be acknowledged. This doesn't mean journalists never do "serious" or "important" work that has positive effects beyond titillation, but it does mean that sensationalism is always an ingredient. Otherwise, no one is interested.

Frontline is a bit of a sacred cow among news magazines, consistently employing a level of intelligence and thoroughness that most commercially produced shows do not. But Frontline is just as hypocritical as CNN or MSNBC when they try to absolve themselves of the charge of sensationalism; and the journalism profession is also sullied when it tries to rally around such a "paragon of objectivity."

If you're going to give the people what they want, whether in the form of scandal, sex, violence, or celebration, then at least have the balls to admit it. Don't let the side effects of civil impact go to your head and get in the way of the story.

Jeff Diehl doesn't let his big head go to his head.