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'Frontline' files an eye-opening credit report

All you really need to know about the credit card industry can be summed up in the look on Ed Yingling's face as he sits across from reporter Lowell Bergman in this week's "Frontline" episode. Yingling is the top lobbyist for the banking industry and, more specifically, the flak catcher, sent out to answer every query assembled by the research arms of PBS and The New York Times.

And when Bergman asks why no major credit card companies will talk to him, Yingling looks knowingly, almost apologetically wry. "They pay us dues," he says, "to handle these kinds of sometimes-difficult assignments."

Yes, it's pretty clear that if "Frontline" sets out to examine the $30 billion credit card industry, the banks aren't going to be the good guys. And "Secret History of the Credit Card," the hourlong show that airs tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), is a damning report about an industry that preys on consumer naivete and, perhaps just as disturbing, the consumers who run willingly into its traps.

Just in time for the holiday spending season, "Frontline" does us the service of finally reading the fine print on those long, eye-numbing credit card contracts, and what's inside isn't pleasant: fees that generate increasing amounts of revenue, loan rates that can quickly climb as high as 30 percent and can be changed at any time, even if, for example, you're late paying an unrelated bill. The result is a teetering financial crisis: The average American family carries $7,500 in credit card debt.

This is serious stuff, but told calmly: It's explanatory journalism Bergman-style, and rabble-rousing documentarians like Michael Moore should take note. You can imagine the ruckus Moore would make with an us-versus-the-big-guy subject like this, but "Frontline" makes its points without a lot of fanfare, using the time-honored method of letting people sink themselves.

That's not to say there aren't a few editorial flourishes: There are enough shots of credit cards being produced, amid the whir and hum of mass machinery, to drum in the point that, yes, we're cogs. Plus, it's easy to make hay of the Orwellian aspects of the business, from the nonsense names of credit rating companies -- "Equifax," "Fair Isaac" -- to the fact that cardholders who pay off their bills every month are labeled "deadbeats."

(In a nice comic touch, the model deadbeat is good old Ben Stein; the actor/writer declares he carries so many credit cards in his wallet that "I look like I've got a third breast.")

More often, though, Bergman and crew have to do nothing more than let the cameras roll to show us who's victim, and, of course, who's villain. It's Yingling, the banking spokesman, who labels so-called "revolvers," those who carry balances every month, as the industry's "sweet spot." Julie Williams, acting head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency -- a federal agency that has labeled some bank practices "troubling" but done nothing more -- seems vaguely inhuman as she spouts out doublespeak in an extra-high-necked turtleneck sweater.

But the most sinister character by far is Andrew Kahr, the consultant who masterminded some of the industry's most debt-inducing practices. He's introduced with the priceless caveat that he only agreed to talk "if we did not identify his clients or where he is currently living."

Kahr, it turns out, is the master of human nature who convinced companies that, if they offered zero percent introductory rates, they'd draw more consumers who would build up more debt in the future. He also realized that by lowering the monthly minimum balance, he could entice consumers to borrow more because they thought they were being financially prudent.

That's the saddest truth "Frontline" reveals: the way people play into the hands of these banking practices while convincing themselves that they're actually being responsible. Thirty-five million Americans make only the minimum payment every month, and "Frontline" puts faces on those numbers, assembling a panel of regular folks who freely admit how little they know about their credit card contracts.

Yes, one says, she uses her card to buy that dress she really can't afford. Yes, says another, he has enough money to pay off his cards, but doesn't. No, none of them realizes that if they paid only their minimum balance, it could take decades to pay off their purchases.

Knowing that "would inspire me to put down more," one of them says. This is a true example of knowledge as power: a show that makes you want to shut the TV off and go pay some bills, in full.

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