The News vs. The Newsroom: Was There a Real 'Genoa' Report? Yes—in 1998

Comparing the HBO series' depictions of Mitt Romney's campaign staff gaffes and the investigative reports on "Operation Genoa" to what really happened


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 sixth episode of Aaron Sorkin's HBO series' second season compares to the real-life news coverage of the time period it portrays.

The Newsroom: Business reporter Sloan Sabbith mentions to Will that she's thinking of doing a story on Disney's colossal 2012 box-office flop John Carter.

"It's projected to lose about $200 million for Disney," she says to Will. "Say what you want, but they're one of the few American industries still making a product people want to buy. Nobody's gonna ask for a bailout, and Disney's stock is relatively safe. Entertainment is one of our highest revenue-generating exports, and they employ members of 17 different unions, all of which have excellent minimum basic contracts. They may take it in the teeth on John Carter, but no one's going to get hurt."

The news: Dennis Kneale of Fox Business News delivered a similar story in May of 2012. He pointed out that while the mega-failure of John Carter was, of course, a large-scale loss for Disney, the studio's stock prices, still excellent predictors of growth in Americans' disposable-income spending habits, hadn't taken a hit -- in fact, their stock prices were up almost 30 percent over the last six months. Disney's bottom line, according to Kneale -- especially with the help of The Avengers, released the same summer -- would be just fine.

The Newsroom: On March 21, Mitt Romney spokeswoman Taylor crashes Jim's date with Hallie while she and the rest of the Romney campaign are in New York. "I know you had a special night planned, so of course I'm coming along," Taylor says smugly. "You know why?"

"Because we spent six minutes and 20 seconds--" Jim sighs.

"On Etch-a-Sketch," she finishes.

The news: On the morning of March 21, CNN's John Fugelsang asked Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser for the Romney campaign, whether competition with the other Republican presidential nominees had pushed Romney's platform so far to the right that it could hurt his chances in the general election. Fehrnstrom replied that the governor could "hit a reset button" for the fall campaign. "Everything changes," he said. "It's like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

While the moment did create a media frenzy among those eager to weigh in on Romney's apparently adjustable political beliefs -- Etch-a-Sketches were brandished by commentators and rival politicians alike in the days following -- six minutes and 20 seconds is a pretty startling figure for a nightly news show.

ABC's evening broadcast only assigned the story about two minutes and 20 seconds. "Mitt Romney and his campaign had wanted to talk about his victory in the Illinois primary," said Washington correspondent Jake Tapper. But then, he said, holding up an Etch-a-Sketch, "debate over this iconic children's toy, the Etch-a-Sketch, threatened to erase all that."

NBC's segment on the gaffe lasted two and a half minutes; Fox News gave it three minutes and five seconds. But Rachel Maddow, in a nearly 15-minute segment on her MSNBC show, took Romney's entire political career to task when she dug deep into the implications of the "Romney as Etch-a-Sketch" metaphor. "The shake-everything-up-and-invent-your-own-reality side of him has an even more serious implication," she said. "He lies all the time."

The Newsroom: This week's episode ended on an ominous cliffhanger note: Charlie Skinner admits to a team of lawyers investigating ACN's story on a black op called Operation Genoa that "None of it was true." We can likely expect, then, that more of the fallout from the story, in which the ACN news team reports on American troops' alleged use of sarin gas on civilians while performing an extraction in a small village in Pakistan in 2009, will be explained next week.

For now, though, we know two things:

  1. that producer Jerry Dantana has edited an on-camera interview in such a way that General Stanislaus Stomtonovich appears to admit that U.S. military used chemical weapons in Pakistan when he made no such admission in the real interview, and

  2. that despite having six seemingly credible sources (a Twitter user in the Pakistani village, two soldiers from the unit, the general, an aid worker stationed in the region, and an anonymous high-level source), the story turns out to be false.

The news: As other news sources have pointed out this summer, the Operation Genoa storyline borrows heavily from a 1998 CNN report called "The Valley of Death." CNN accused American soldiers of having used sarin gas in Laos in an extraction nicknamed Operation Tailwind during the Vietnam War, then later retracted the story on the grounds that it was untrue.

Like the ACN News Night team, CNN had a seemingly credible cast of sources when they aired the segment. According to independent attorney Floyd Abrams's report on his after-the-fact investigation of CNN's "Valley of Death" story,

There were three highly placed confidential sources that were understood to have confirmed both the use of sarin gas and that defectors were targeted in Operation Tailwind. One, particularly knowledgeable about chemical weaponry, was intimately familiar with nerve agents. Another was a senior intelligence source with access to records of Operation Tailwind. A third was a former high ranking officer intimately familiar with SOG. All were said to have validated the conclusions of the broadcast. Two of the three, news management was told, had reviewed the text of the broadcast before it was shown and approved it.

... There were participants in Tailwind itself, Robert Van Buskirk, Mike Hagen, Jimmy Lucas, Craig Schmidt, Jay Graves, James Cathey, and Ike Isola.

CNN producers were accused of having flatly disregarded evidence and testimonies that ran contrary to their intended storyline and edited interviews, as Jerry does in The Newsroom, in such a way that the meanings of certain subjects' statements were manipulated.

In an interview with us (and in numerous other interviews since the broadcast) [operation ground leader Captain Eugene] McCarley has denounced his treatment on the broadcast. He states that after saying that the use of the nerve gas "was possible," he then said that it had never been used by any of his troops, in fact, was not in the Vietnamese Theater at all. He said, as well, that the mission had nothing to do with killing American defectors. ...

What McCarley said to the CNN producer [April Oliver] and she to him is a matter of credibility about which we are unable to pass judgment. This is one of the few cases in which the producer's notes which totally support her version of what was said to her off camera are flatly inconsistent with what an individual who has been interviewed claimed he said.

What we can judge, however, is the unacceptability of minimizing McCarley's views on the broadcast. Given the fact that he led the mission, we do not believe that McCarley's views, even if rejected by CNN, were given sufficient prominence. In an 18 minute segment (the producer had asked for an hour) dealing with complicated matters, it is always difficult to provide "enough" time for everyone's views. But McCarley was the leader of the unit being described and had flatly denied the thrust of the broadcast. His views were entitled to more prominent treatment.

The same is true of others who repeatedly rejected the notion that nerve gas had been used. Both Don Feld and Art Bishop, the two pilots who flew the A-1s that dropped the gas in question, denied that they dropped nerve gas. Bishop even found a journal notation he had written the day after Tailwind's conclusion that stated his plane was stocked with CBU-30 tear gas on the Tailwind drop. The sole reference to this in the broadcast is Arnett's statement that "even a pilot who dropped gas to get the commandos out said he was briefed it was just tear gas," suggesting implicitly that the pilots themselves had been misled.