Remembering Marrie Campbell
From David Fanning
It’s with great sadness that I share the news that Marrie Campbell passed away this last Sunday, November 13, 2022.
Marrie was the longtime Series Editor and Editorial Director for FRONTLINE. She joined us in the first year of the series, 1983, and retired in 2011. She was one of the most beloved members of the FRONTLINE family, a dear gentle soul with strong opinions about the importance of our mission, and a wide-ranging intellect and curiosity. More than her influence on the kind and content of the films we produced, she made her mark when I asked her to become the de facto Editor of FRONTLINE’s ground-breaking website, beginning in 1995. She was passionate about the possibilities of a new frontier in journalism, and she pushed to keep our website distinctive and innovative, fending off PBS and any attempt to limit our ambitions.
The FRONTLINE website was, as best we know, one of the earliest deep-content sites of its kind. Working with a young designer/coder, Sam Bailey, Marrie’s team were not just creating one-of-a-kind sites for every film, but Sam built our own video player (over PBS’s objections) so that by 2000 we were ahead of most everybody, streaming video in increasing depth and length. Marrie was fierce in her championing of this work, arriving in my doorway regularly, vibrating with indignance and looking for political support to keep experimenting with the form. She and her team laid the ground for today’s media environment and the integration of journalism and the web.
Marrie was a neighbor in Marblehead. After retirement she immersed herself in Spanish by traveling in Latin America, and taught English as a second language. She hiked across Scotland and in the Swiss alps. She played her piano and was in her garden with her dogs and always, a cat. My wife Renata, Lou Wiley and I were with her for dinners and holidays. We will miss her deeply, as will all who knew her.
When I shared this news, many of her friends and colleagues wrote touchingly about Marrie. I’ll attach a few excerpts here, with their permission, and trust that others will post their own memories on this Alumni site.
DF: This is from Mike Kirk, who first worked with Marrie in the 1970’s at KCTS Seattle, and recruited her to come to FRONTLINE in 1983:
The first time I saw Marrie she was sitting at a makeshift desk in a small closet in the corner of the ramshackle production offices of the PBS station in Seattle. Tiny, glasses askew, swimming in a huge sweater with holey elbows, she leapt up and introduced herself, and in a matter of seconds had given me my brief. She wanted me to shake things up, never take no for an answer and think BIG. I immediately knew she was a force of nature and that resistance was futile. She was incredible—outspoken, super smart, opinionated. Small but fierce, she was caustic, a tiny bit profane and completely compelling. I had found a compatriot, a trusted colleague, an ongoing source of ideas and, most importantly, a friend. I was truly blessed to have her as a comrade, and for the next few years we worked hard, had a lot of fun and made good television together. Then, a new documentary series came calling. FRONTLINE was David Fanning’s grand idea and he needed the staff to make it happen. I signed on, and thankfully, Marrie agreed to join as well. We made the journey east in the early 80s and for decades she brought that same brilliance and relentless energy to FRONTLINE. She was indefatigable, elevating everything she worked on, and never afraid of telling truth to power. I relied on her, I trusted her, I admired her completely. We all did.
DF: Here’s Louis Wiley, who was my closest editorial colleague on “World”, the series that preceded FRONTLINE and when we took up the challenge of a new, enlarged, 26-part documentary series, became the Series Executive Editor.
A smart, energetic, principled voice is silent now. I will miss her.
Marrie had a toughness of mind that I admired. She was a fighter for big ideas: pleased when FRONTLINE focused its attention on stories of moral consequence. “Memory of the Camps” is a good example – it endures to this day. They were many others.
She also fought to define the shape of the FRONTLINE web site when other entities wanted to detach it from the series or force it to conform to rules that seemed inappropriate. I think of the great battle over “the walled garden” – when some believed that once on the site, visitors shouldn’t be allowed to hyperlink out of it. She won that one.
Stepping back, all the turmoil wasn’t surprising because it was an exciting era. Something new was being created – a publishing platform that hadn’t existed. Marrie led the charge – confronting the myriad editorial, technical, design and political (small p) challenges. Yet, this complicated task would often reveal that structural and policy questions rested on values. Who better to guide the process at FRONTLINE (and influence others) than someone whose values were steadfast. To put it succinctly: Marrie was no weathervane.
While it’s important to remember her contributions at work, there are personal memories that touch my heart. Her home-made soup (healthy ingredients!) and corn bread! Her excellent eye for which play to see at the Huntington! Her tales of adventures (a serious walking tour across southern England)! And her make-you-laugh zingers on all sorts of matters!
I sometimes tell folks that I have more personal emails than Hillary Clinton, an albatross I keep promising to address, but one silver lining is that I found a batch from Marrie which reminded me of specific small things we shared usually with others – meals, theater – opportunities to connect. “Only connect” advised E.M. Forster, and I think he was right.
A closing anecdote: Marrie and I were judges for a documentary award at the Salem Film Festival named after FRONTLINE’s Executive Producer for Special Projects, Mike Sullivan who passed away in 2013. In our last decision, we followed this procedure: we streamed the 5-6 nominees at home and each of us put our choice for winner and runner-up in a sealed envelope, then we met to discuss. We had arranged that the festival organizer would be the deciding third vote if we couldn’t agree. We opened our envelopes, and Marrie’s winner and runner-up were my winner and runner-up. Mind meld! No need to discuss; just enjoyed a coffee and donut (gluten free!).
DF: Here’s an email from Ken Dornstein, who began as part of the web team, and subsequently went on to work closely on films and as a senior producer of FRONTLINE/World. He wrote and directed an epic three part series “My Brother’s Bomber”, which launched the 2015 season of FRONTLINE.
Seeing Marrie’s name in the subject line of a note from David felt like it couldn’t be good news, and, sadly, it wasn’t. But reading the responses from everyone made me think about Marrie for the first time in a long time– and we’re all alive as long as those who knew and cared for us still remember, right?
The first time I set foot in the FRONTLINE offices on Western Ave it was to see Marrie.
It was a late afternoon and for some reason the office was otherwise empty. Marrie had called me in for an interview, but I don’t remember her ever really asking me any questions. I think she just started to talk about something that piqued her curiosity or set her off on one of the signature rambles, and then we were off. We talked for two or three hours. It was the year 2000 and Marrie was bubbling over about the future of the internet and streaming video. PBS, she told me proudly, had a total of three video streams at the moment, and they were moving fast toward the Brave New World when ten different people around the country could stream PBS video at the same time. It was almost comically small-scale stuff—i think she said there were three Mac classics in a closet in DC serving all of the PBS video—but, in Marrie’s exuberant telling, it felt like the start of something big.
Marrie offered me a job the next day and I took it. I’d been knocking on FRONTLINE’s door for several years in various ways, but Marrie was the one who actually let me in. We worked closely together for several years, but I don’t think we ever spoke nearly as openly and expansively or for as long as we did in that first meeting. I don’t remember ever talking to her about personal things, and yet, somehow with Marrie, even when she was going off on politics or PBS bureaucracy or rhapsodizing about her garden, it felt like she was telling you something deeply personal about who she was, what she valued, and how profoundly she cared about the things she cared about—especially the work she did so tirelessly, so loyally, and so well for so long at FRONTLINE.
David—thank you for reaching out to all of us, even it was to relay such unfortunate news. I’m sure Marrie would have counseled you against it, preferring, as always, to keep her situation to herself. But if she always knew best, all of us would only eat a little sliced apple and cheese for lunch each day, and we know that most of us usually hunger for a little more from Marrie than her spartan ways permitted.
DF: Renata Simone created “The AIDS Quarterly with Peter Jennings” for WGBH in 1989. it later became “The Health Quarterly”. In 2006 she produced and reported the four-part series “The Age of AIDS, and later “Endgame: AIDS in Black America” in 2011.
Oh dear all,
How I wish Marrie could somehow know and feel these beautiful, loving thoughts. And yes Ken! The first time I too stepped into WGBH was to see Marrie!
It was 1985 and I was a graduate student looking for something to do part-time, outside of academia. In the basement of the student center there was a dark job office with a few postings in a loose leaf binder. One was for a researcher at a relatively new PBS series called Frontline, which I thought was about the best thing on TV. I put a quarter in the pay phone.
It was Marrie who answered and explained the job was to be her assistant. We clicked right away, yakking up a storm about all sorts of issues and stories — I knew I’d be wildly lucky to work for her. She explained they needed someone to read medical journals and translate them into English, to help them think about a new, lethal disease, then called the “Gay Cancer”. I’d started out pre-med and could do that. She hired me. Decades passed…
During those years, as our friendship grew and changed, I was always awed by how energetically she dove into all kinds of ideas and how lightly she wore her brilliance. I still am. Always will be.
DF: Here’s a reminiscence from Sarah Moughty who worked closely with Marrie in the early years of the web, and became managing editor of the FRONTLINE website. She’s now executive editor of HBR.org…
The sad news about Marrie’s death has sparked a reconnection with friends and former colleagues and so many of us — particularly the young women whom she mentored — have shared a similar reaction: She took a chance on me.
Marrie had a great eye for talent, and she was especially fond of unconventional thinkers. She taught us all not to compromise on our high standards, and she modelled how to not take no for an answer. She was incredibly ambitious — in the decade+ that I worked for her, during the heady days of the early Internet, we built a video player, a search engine, an online betting market, and more. She was a tough editor and would send drafts of my stories back to me over and over again, until they were as sharp as they could possibly be.
From the first days I started working for Marrie, I made it a daily habit to pop into her office at some point. We’d talk about what we were working on, and we’d discuss and debate the news of the day. We’d sometimes argue, but we’d almost always end up laughing.
As my career grew and I became a manager myself, I realized how annoying these drop-bys probably were. One day, I said to her, “Even though you’re busy, you always stop and make time for me, and I want you to know how much that means.” She looked at me like I was nuts, of course, but I’m grateful I got to say it. It’s one of the most important lessons she taught me: Always take the time to connect, discuss, argue, and laugh. You’ll never regret it.
Jim Bracciale recently retired as Managing Director of FRONTLINE…
“I have such vivid memories of Marrie going off on some passionate tirade—from clergy sexual abuse to Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities to the lunch menu in the cafeteria. Nothing better than seeing that fire in her belly boil over. She made me laugh out loud with her uncontainable commentaries about topics on her mind.
I’ll keep her in my prayers.”
DF: We hope more of her friends and colleagues will add their stories and memories, and share this link with the wider GBH audience and beyond.
Marrie and I had offices next to one another for many years at FRONTLINE. She and I shared many laughs and a few arguments. She could be feisty. But often right as I recall. Trying to trigger more memories, I went back to read all our emails. There were more than a few hundred of them, discussing films and the websites she was building around them. Before Marrie launched the website, the films would go out over the airwaves and virtually disappear. Marrie gave them a permanent home. They continued to live. Prior to Marrie, our films lived an afterlife junked into various boxes of documents, outtakes, notes and photographs. Basically, much of our valuable research was lost. She saved us.
Also sifting through all the emails, what struck me was not her enthusiasms (she had those for sure as many have mentioned) so much as her rigor and seriousness about getting things right. There is a lot of back and forth over the correct way to curate materials, what to feature and how to build off of the films. I can’t stress how good her work was and how committed she was to it. She was a joy to work with too.
I was very saddened when she left the series and I lost touch pretty much but once in a while she wrote me after seeing a program to say what she thought. I was happy to find those emails. If she was complimentary, it meant a lot. She was not one for false praise.
I was heartened to hear that she continued to share holiday meals with David, Renata and Lou. Here’s raising a glass to you Marrie. Bless your soul.