Into the "Vanguard" of Television Journalism

05/25/2011 02:20 pm ET

Last year my fellow "Vanguard" journalist and friend, Mariana Van Zeller, returned from the Iran/Iraq border where she had spent two weeks living side-by-side with Kurdish guerillas. Mariana was investigating a story about the U.S. funding a group known as PJAK, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, in order to wage a proxy war with Iran.

In a way only a crack journalist (and a woman) could do, Mariana lived alongside some of the women (women constitute about 30 percent of this rebel group), and documented both their lives and questioned the more covert aspects of their international support. The explosiveness of Mariana's story is that PJAK is little more than an offshoot of the PKK, a militant group that has been battling Turkey for decades and is widely recognized as an international terrorist outfit. Therefore, U.S. support for a sister organization could be both offensive to our regional ally Turkey and dubious as far as international law goes.

Now, it is certainly not the first or last time that the U.S. will use a nefarious group of non-state actors as proxies to achieve foreign policy goals. We have a long, tortured history in Latin America and the rest of the world of supporting organizations whose history and methodology is suspect but whose goals are at least temporarily allied with U.S. interests. However, given the particular rhetoric (and name) of the Global War on Terror, and our relationship with Turkey, the idea of financing a known terrorist organization still holds particular shock value to the public. Mariana's story, "America's Secret War," was a great example of boots-on-the-ground journalism bringing us an important international affairs story.

A week after Mariana returned she was deeply involved in editing her story. On average, a 30-minute TV special will take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks in the edit room. As I perused through my freshly arrived copy of the New Yorker that week, I flipped to Seymour Hersh's article titled "Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush administration steps up its secret moves against Iran." Hersh's article was a chilling account of secret presidential findings, CIA and DOD leaks, and clandestine admissions of exactly what Mariana had just observed on the ground.

In short it was exactly the same story, but done in a much different way. Rather than going to Kurdistan, Hersh composed a story garnered by the kind of access only a juggernaut like he can generate.

I immediately called Mariana to tell her about the article. Her response: "If you're gonna get scooped, it's good that it's by Seymour Hersh."

Mariana's overall optimism aside, this anecdote tells us (and Hersh) something quite startling: There's a new sheriff in town, and it's called "Vanguard" journalism.

The "Vanguard" team is breaking convention and new stories with a breed of journalism. Young, aggressive and willing to go places few other people go, "Vanguard" is telling stories in a way that manhandles the stand up, scripted, bizarre cadence and dearth of content that has come to define so much of TV news. By pushing boundaries, borders and limits, "Vanguard" has been at the forefront of a series of original stories.

"Vanguard" journalists were the first western television crew in Somalia in over a decade, the first to put waterboarding on national TV and of the first to expose the rising tide of neo-fascism in Russia. These kinds of leading edge stories should be sending shockwaves to anyone who thinks you can't do good journalism on TV and to anyone who thinks news is boring. And the best part -- the whole enterprise is a bunch of twenty and thirty-somethings filled with passion at the idea of remaking TV news.

Despite their youth, the "Vanguard" team has done something else novel. In an industry poisoned by the paradigm that you have to trade truth for access, "Vanguard" reminds us that there is an alternative model. Want to know what's going on in Iran? Forget trading favors with some disgruntled politician for an off the record interview. Go there. "Vanguard" is boots-on-the ground, old school, hard-nosed immersive reporting done almost verité. In an era where most newspapers and TV outlets are closing their overseas bureaus, it's refreshing to be part of a team that is tacking in the opposite direction.

Fast-forward one year from the publishing of Hersh's piece. The "Vanguard" team is in Peruggia, Italy at an annual journalism conference to promote the launch of "Vanguard" Italy. The headline speaker at the event is Seymour Hersh. Hersh politely agrees to meet with the team. They spend about 20 minutes together.

At first Hersh is respectful but skeptical of the group of kids around him. As we discuss intricacies of policy including Iran, Gaza, My Lai and Abu Ghraib, you can sense a palpable change in Hersh. He begins to realize these kids are for real, and starts to engage with us. The conversation is, of course, peppered with outside interruptions, "Can I have your autograph sir?" "Of course." " What time are you speaking?" "One p.m. in el teatro." "Can I send a bottle of wine to your room?" "Yes, Thank you, room 308." But still, Hersh is now rolling, and we are all bouncing ideas off each other.

It's an inter-generational conference of ideas. But, as quick as it begins, it ends. Hersh's handler whisks into the picture and bam he's off to his talk with a rapid goodbye.

Several hours later, after Hersh's talk, I'm drinking a soda at the hotel bar with another "Vanguard" journalist discussing the lecture and journalism while waiting for our train. As we get ready to leave the bill comes, and I don't have enough in Euros to cover it. I tell the bartender "charge it to my room, Hersh - 308." The point of the anecdote is that not only do we owe Hersh for two fantas, but we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for defining investigative journalism for over three decades.

But as I signed the "firma" line on the bottom of what was now Hersh's bar tab, my reminder to the old guard of journalism was clear. In place of a signature, a simple message: "Vanguard is here."

The New Season of "Vanguard" premieres Oct. 14 2009 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. It will feature stories such as Mariana van Zeller's "The OxyContin Express," an investigation into the illicit prescription pill trade in Florida, and "Remote Control Warfare," Kaj Larsen's glimpse into the future of war fighting.

Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist for Current TV. He is a former U.S. Navy SEAL, and serves on the board of The Mission Continues, a non-profit dedicated to mentoring wounded veterans into public service. He holds a Masters degree in public policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"Vanguard" Season Three Preview:

"America's Secret War"

"From Russia with Hate"

"Getting Waterboarded"