It’s not like Frontline can’t be alarmist. It’s the most responsible news documentary program on American TV, but it has the same tendency as other news programs to inflate small bits of evidence into giant calamities. Most of the time, the show’s good about keeping its findings from trying to stand in for an actual pattern of corruption, instead of a series of incidents that may or may not be connected, but it will occasionally go a little nuts, especially in the muckraking episodes. “Post Mortem” is one of those episodes, and while it doesn’t push too hard, it does feel like something that’s only skimming the surface of a subject that’s so deep it could support several feature-length documentaries. In the end, the producers of the episode take aim at just a handful of serious cases and hope those will stand in well enough for the few that the episode only glancingly checks in on. It works, for the most part, but it’s a near thing.
One of the advantages Frontline has when it delves into a subject this deeply (and the one-subject hours are almost always better than the multiple-subject hours) is the fact that it tends to get into the stuff that no other news programs on TV are talking about. The news in “Post Mortem” isn’t exactly new—people have been complaining about the problems with, say, elected coroner positions for years and years now—but it’s never been assembled quite this well or quite this handily in one place before. The sheer breadth of the subject matter is daunting, giving the episode the feel of something that has just barely begun to get to the meat of the story at hand. Again, Frontline is helped here by the fact that the subject at hand is something that you’d never see on, say, a cable news channel, but it’s hurt by the fact that it ultimately may be too big for the show to pin down in the allotted running time.
Here’s the basic issue: The United States doesn’t have nearly enough competently trained medical examiners or forensic experts. In many places, the county coroner is an elected office and one that a person doesn’t necessarily need special training to hold. The country doesn’t have any sort of oversight board for these offices, which means that people who don’t have the requisite knowledge to perform these jobs often hold them, forwarding on information that could mean the difference between a guilty and not guilty verdict in a criminal trial to prosecutors that then use that information to send men and women, who may be innocent (as in the case of someone from Mississippi), to jail, sometimes for life. Even worse, this deficiency of trained professionals may mean that we’re not finding cases of murder when we should be, particularly among the elderly, who can often be written off as dying from old age, when they might actually have been killed.
It’s pretty chilling stuff, definitely. And “Post Mortem,” reported by Lowell Bergman, gives us a nice, big picture view of the problems with the situation, including a series of quick hits from a Pro Publica and NPR study of the state of the medical examiner field that includes examiners somehow missing a bullet wound in a man’s head in Michigan. But because the hour could feel too scattershot without some sort of focus, Bergman turns his attention to two problematic medical examiners, a Dr. Thomas Gill and a Dr. Paul McGarry. In the case of Gill, who formerly worked in northern California, there’s damning video of the man being coached by the prosecution in a trial he was to be a part of, coached to say things that showed he clearly didn’t have a great idea of what he was doing. In the case of McGarry, there’s a long string of sloppy medicine and abruptly changed paperwork, evidence that points to the fact that he was trying to cover up the tracks of his botched autopsies and make everything OK. Worse, Gill was actually able to work again in Kansas City (for the same firm that had hired him in California!), where he encountered many of the same problems all over again, as if no one in the United States has ever heard of a paper chain before.
This is all damning evidence, of course, but it’s mostly damning toward the two guys doing the bad things and the people who had the temerity to keep working with them after there was evidence that they were not good at what they did. What this episode is missing is a sense of breadth. Sure, the segments where you get quick hits versions of stories like this from other corners of the country go by far too quickly (the segment on the damages this problem does to the elderly goes by much too quickly, for example), but they also give a sense that this is more than a problem affecting just a handful of places. When “Post Mortem” turns over its mid-section almost entirely to the stories of Gill and McGarry, that’s when it starts to get bogged down just a bit from its primary mission statement, which is that the U.S. should set up some sort of medical examiners’ board and have standards that stretch across the country and pertain to everyone who holds a job in this vein.
And that gets into another thing Frontline does well: It’s able to create a sense in the viewer that something needs to be done, create a solid sense of what that something should be, and stop just short of actually advocating that something. In this case, it has Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner, Marcella Fiero, be the one to express the idea that the current system just doesn’t cut it and suggest some possible reforms. At no time does Frontline actually say any of this should be carried out; that would sully its reputation as a serious news program. (I’d actually be in favor of more direct advocacy journalism in programs like this, where it’s so obvious where the reporters and producers’ stance lies, but that’s a subject for another episode.) But it does find someone to respond to all of the evidence it’s turned up in Fiero, and it gets her to say what we’re all already thinking. By and large, it even gives her what amounts to the last word.
Still, “Post Mortem” may be a case of the program biting off more that it can chew at the same time as it limits its focus too much. It’s an episode that wants to be simultaneously sweeping and precise, and the two aims clash with each other too much to make the whole structure sustainable. There’s a lot of really interesting information in “Post Mortem,” but there’s also a frenzied sense of everyone involved trying to fit the material they’ve gathered into under 55 minutes of screentime. Frontline’s shown a willingness to go much larger in the past, when the subject it’s covering merits the amount of time devoted to it, and “Post Mortem” could have gone from troubling to a great news documentary with just a little more time. As it stands, it’s a fascinating muddle but a well-reported one.