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."

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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