Each presidential election since 1988, PBS’ “Frontline” has produced “The Choice,” an in-depth bio-documentary on the two major-party nominees.
This year, the choice is different. And therefore “The Choice” is different.
The change is clear in the opening minutes, where the most striking quote comes not from a presidential historian but from Omarosa Manigault, once a contestant on “The Apprentice,” now director of African-American outreach for Donald Trump.
“The Choice 2016,” which makes its debut Tuesday on PBS, begins at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. President Barack Obama, just after releasing his long-form birth certificate, conducts an extended roast of Trump, the businessman and reality-TV host who loudly peddled the lie that the president was not born in the United States.
We see Trump sit, rigid-faced, fuming. “The Choice” suggests that his decision to run for president may have been born in that room.
“Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump,” Manigault says.
The documentary, directed by Michael Kirk and written by him and Mike Wiser, pingpongs between the two candidates’ narratives. The half devoted to Hillary Clinton is more familiar, and not just because her husband was profiled in two past installments.
This year’s “The Choice” has to tell the stories of two candidates who have been media fixtures for decades. There’s little surprising, for instance, in the section on Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, which falls back on the familiar conclusion that a marriage is a mystery to anyone outside it.
The documentary does find memorable moments in the candidates’ childhoods. Hillary Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham, is described as a hard man who belittled her accomplishments and verbally abused her mother. She didn’t like to bring friends home. “The Choice” argues that this upbringing – along with the scrutiny of the White House years – contributed to a self-defeating secrecy and defensiveness.
Trump’s father, the Queens-based real estate developer Fred Trump, was tough, too. But he raised his son with the belief that he was born, genetically, to be a winner. The elder Trump taught his children the “racehorse theory of human development,” the author Michael D’Antonio says: “If you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring.”
In the past, “The Choice” has often found parallels between its candidates despite their different policies and different paths. Not so much this year.
The picture “The Choice” draws of Clinton is of someone whose faults are within the familiar universe of politicians’ failings: caution, secrecy, suspicion, overcompromising.
Its sketch of Trump is of a different order. It presents him as petty, vain, self-dealing, image-obsessed, a master manipulator, uninterested in growing as a person, driven only to serve his greater glory. The narrative is sober, straightforward and presented without editorializing. But it is quietly, firmly damning.
Which is not to say “The Choice” will necessarily change a single mind. This election has shown that Clinton’s and Trump’s voters do not just have different opinions but occupy different psychic universes, operating under different definitions of qualification and character. In any case, affecting votes should not be the measure of political journalism.
But the two hours are a striking example of how to avoid the journalistic pitfall sometimes labeled “false equivalency.” What if you have to cover two candidates and they simply don’t compare equally? Do you grade them on a curve? Stretch to find counterexamples for the appearance of balance? What if laying out the simple evidence you find might make you seem to be taking a side?
“The Choice” makes a good answer. You give the candidates equal time; you are not required to equal out their portraits. You present, as directly as you can, reality as you have found it. If someone doesn’t like that, so be it.
That, too, is a choice, and it’s the right one.
“The Choice” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on UNC-TV.