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Review: News War (PBS)

It's hard not to damn PBS' News War -- even when praising it.

Tuesday night's launch of this four-part Frontline series cogently dissects the Valerie Plame leak investigation and what it could mean to the future of independent, unfettered journalism.

Yeah, like that's going to get people to watch.

This first hour (at 9 p.m. on KERA-TV in Dallas) also intelligently revisits a 35-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that continues to weigh heavily on the public's right to know vs. a journalist's right to protect confidential sources.

Wow, be still my heart.

Sorry, but no amount of coaxing is likely to bring many viewers to this table. Way too many Americans now see the media as rabid vultures, duplicitous ax-grinders or just plain dupes. And the ongoing, ludicrously overplayed coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's sudden death isn't helping matters.

News War does have an air of importance, though, not that it feels self-important. Tuesday's Part One certainly elevates the profession to a far higher calling than Entertainment Tonight's continuing canonization of Smith's last boyfriend, Howard K. Stern.

There's plenty of meat here, with former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman as point man. His efforts will continue on Feb. 20 and 27th, and on March 27, when News War will cease fire after training its sights on media around the globe.

Bergman, whom Al Pacino played in the acclaimed feature film The Insider, is a ringwise, no B.S. guy who both knows the players and can get them to talk.

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, for one, admits falling head over heels for the Bush administration's WMD-fueled sale of the war in Iraq.

"I was totally wrong," he says. "I think I dropped the ball here. I should've pushed much, much harder."

A Frontline documentary, as Bergman notes, also fell for the idea that Saddam Hussein's "smoking gun" easily could become a "mushroom cloud," as then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice so effectively put it.

This is all prelude to "Plamegate" and its ongoing trials and recriminations. A review copy of News War sent late last month will be updated to reflect recent developments, including the high-profile testimony of Meet the Press host Tim Russert.

Part 3 of News War, not yet available for preview, looks at the mounting pressures on newspapers to turn Wall Street-pleasing profits. Bergman also will examine the changing face of news in times when a New York University study says that a majority of Americans under 25 catch up on current events via The Daily Show and/or the Internet.

Realistically, hardly anyone under 25 is likely to take the News War plunge. For old-school newsies, though, it's a chocolate-covered power bar. Tastes good and has plenty of fiber, too.

Grade: A-minus