The News vs. The Newsroom: Can One Report Bring a Network 'to Its Knees'?

Comparing the HBO series' depictions of the investigative reports on "Operation Genoa" and the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to what really happened
newsroom ep 7 don.jpg

How does The Newsroom's version of news events from last year fit in with the way those events really unfolded in the media? Not always perfectly -- but not always incorrectly, either. Here's how the seventh episode of Aaron Sorkin's HBO series' second season compares to the real-life news coverage of the time period it portrays.

The Newsroom: After 11 months of reporting, the Operation Genoa story -- Jerry Dantana's brainchild, an exposé on a 2009 military operation in Pakistan during which some sources say U.S. troops used sarin gas -- airs on News Night.

And then, as producer Don Keefer explains in the episode, it takes just 48 hours for the whole story to come undone.

Immediately after the Genoa report airs, a key source, three-star military commander Stanislaus Stomtonovich, calls and angrily says he never admitted that the troops used sarin, that the footage of him has been edited in such a way that distorts the meaning of what he told Jerry in his interview. The Department of Defense then issues a statement that ACN's reports are "absolutely false." The DOD says it will pursue legal action through all means possible including invoking the Espionage Act, and will begin declassifying documents to prove that sarin gas was never used.

Later, another key source mentions on air that he has sustained a traumatic brain injury, which calls the validity of his testimony into question. Another source, a chemical-weapons expert, reveals that he's supplied false evidence to support the story just to blackmail the network. And yet another supposed eyewitness, Mackenzie realizes after re-watching interview footage, may have only confirmed another source's account of the events of Operation Genoa because the other source was his close friend.

Finally, Mackenzie re-examines Jerry's supposedly raw interview footage and finds that, because Stomtonovich insisted on leaving a college basketball game on during his interview, the game's shot clock is visible in the frame. The inconsistent countdown on the shot clock reveals that the "raw" footage has been tampered with.

Jerry is promptly fired, the story is retracted (even though Jerry says he knows for sure the use of sarin gas actually happened), and Jerry later sues ACN for wrongful termination. The News Night chiefs -- Charlie, Will, and Mackenzie -- doubt that the public will ever trust their coverage again and agree to resign after the election.

The news: The Newsroom's Don describes the fallout from the Genoa story as having "brought ACN to its knees." On June 7, 1998, CNN had its own "Operation Genoa" story; as I wrote last week, it accused Vietnam War soldiers of having used sarin in Operation Tailwind. And for a moment, CNN found itself in the same unenviable position as ACN.

There were, indeed, accusations, retractions, lawsuits, and resignations. However, there's one crucial difference between The Newsroom's Genoa plot and CNN's real-life Tailwind debacle: Only the fictional version involves direct manipulation of the evidence. The Newsroom's Jerry physically alters the content and thus the message of a crucial interview, but the producers of CNN's segment, investigators decided later, may have just interpreted their findings with too much enthusiasm for their own conclusions.

Attorney Floyd Abrams mounted an independent investigation of CNN's Operation Tailwind story, and in the opening paragraphs of his exhaustive report, he wrote:

Our central conclusion is that although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research, was rooted in considerable supportive data, and reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now.

However, he continues:

While we offer considerable criticism in this report of CNN's newsgathering for this broadcast, we do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent. Contemporaneous notes made by the principal producer, April Oliver, are not only consistent with typed notes that she prepared immediately after her interviews, but in almost all cases with the later recollections of the individuals interviewed. The accuracy of the notes is strongly supported, as well, by the fact that they contain many passages which suggest less than complete or definitive confirmation of the broadcast by its sources and much inconsistent information. We rely upon many of those passages as a basis for our criticism of the broadcast.

Some of the people who were interviewed for the program and with whom we spoke were disturbed at the conclusions reached in the CNN broadcast. Others were critical of CNN for presenting views consistent with its own conclusions and neglecting or minimizing contrasting views. As will be seen, we believe much of that criticism has considerable validity.

But we have found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process. The CNN journalists involved in this project believed in every word they wrote. If anything, the serious flaws in the broadcast that we identify in this report may stem from the depths of those beliefs and the degree to which the journalists discounted contrary information they received precisely because they were so firmly persuaded that what they were broadcasting was true.

On July 2, CNN issued a statement retracting the Tailwind story. "Hundreds of veterans and other former government officials have denied the reports," it read, and it cited Floyd Abrams's findings that "there is insufficient evidence that sarin or any other deadly gas was used."

According to the network's website, "The Pentagon was pleased by CNN's 54-page retraction."

The Department of Defense later released its own lengthy review that denied several of the allegations presented in CNN's Operation Tailwind story. Some of the key sources in the "Valley of Death" segment, like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer and a participant in the operation named Robert Van Buskirk, had talked to the DOD in the wake of the CNN broadcast:

[Van Buskirk] reported that he had no knowledge of the use of Sarin or the targeting of defectors, and he felt that April Oliver had asked him "trick" questions. General Vogt said that he had no memory of anything "remotely resembling" the use of Sarin gas or the killing of American defectors. He said that he found the CNN story "absolutely unbelievable" and categorically denied ever having received or issued such instructions. Thus, neither Admiral Moorer nor General Vogt believes that Sarin gas was used during Operation Tailwind or that defectors were targeted or sighted during the operation.

The Department of Defense also published the transcripts of their interviews with Tailwind participants and military officials.

On The Newsroom, after the story has already aired, a few staffers speak up about having harbored uncertainties; sure enough, similar doubts eventually came to light in the real account, too. CNN's onetime military adviser Perry Smith had been "highly skeptical" of the Tailwind story from the start. Like Jim, Don, and other members of the news team, though, he backed off from his objections as the reporting progressed. He wrote about it in the December 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review:

I learned about CNN's June 7 report on Operation Tailwind -- a Special Forces mission that took place in Laos in September 1970 -- when I got a call the previous Wednesday from a friend who had seen a short CNN promotion of the broadcast. He gave me a brief summary: The United States had used deadly nerve gas against American defectors. I was highly skeptical; I had flown 180 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam and had never heard even a suggestion that anyone had used poison gas.

I called my nominal boss at CNN, Gail Evans, to ask some questions and express my concerns. She told me that she would call me back. In the meantime, I telephoned a number of experts on the Vietnam War, military historians and biographers.

During my first 24 hours of probing, I came up with one person who told me "it might well have happened," while others told me that it could not have happened or that they were unaware of the incident.

On June 4, I made my first mistake. I left a message on Evans' answering machine saying that I was going to "back off" from my objections since I had found one person who thought the horrendous incident might well have taken place. I should never have made that phone call based on one source, particularly when many others disagreed.

When the story aired, it was "much worse" than Smith expected; he spent the next week investigating the story himself, contacting "about 200 people in [his] military brain trust," including "Gene McCarley, the Special Forces commander on the ground during Tailwind; three of the Air Force Skyraider pilots who flew in support of Tailwind (including both of the pilots who dropped the gas); and one of the Marine helicopter pilots who rescued the embattled Special Forces team on the last day of the operation." He then "bombarded" CNN's chairman and CEO Tom Johnson with e-mails "raising point-by-point refutations about each allegation in the broadcast." He realized he was making no progress, and resigned in protest from CNN a week after the story aired.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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