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Sorkin's Simplistic Take on Operation Tailwind: Special Report on 'The Newsroom'

By       Message Jennifer Epps     Permalink
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The Purpose of Media


The concept that the U.S. military could possibly have ever used biochemical warfare on its own members, even turncoats, may be completely beyond the pale for some people -- and it wouldn't be surprising if the thought alone provokes too much cognitive dissonance for Sorkin, ever a sentimentalist about several of the tropes of "patriotism'.   But other investigative reporters have uncovered glimpses of a military program which tested   biochemical weapons on U.S. forces -- and not defectors but loyal, active-duty troops. The Pentagon, naturally, denied the program for as long as they could: eventually, as the press discovered more, the Department of Defense admitted more, in increments. An article by Jon Mitchell posted on Truthout summarizes the Pentagon's admissions thus far: that it ran a highly classified testing program for biochemical agents, code-named Project 112 or Project SHAD, between 1962 and 1974, and that U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa, Hawaii, Panama, and on ships in the Pacific Ocean were experimental subjects for it. But that's alright, the DOD affirms, because "to date, there is no clear evidence of specific, long-term health problems associated with participation in Project SHAD."

It's pretty clear that the DOD didn't start to admit this testing program of its own volition, but because of a dogged media -- in this instance, CBS News. This is exactly the kind of journalism that Sorkin's Newsroom philosophy is meant to celebrate and encourage. Over and over again, the characters on the HBO show declare a passionate commitment to telling the truth even if it's unpopular, to reporting important stories even when powerful enemies try to keep them quiet. In the pilot, which takes place on April 20, 2010, much drama is built up around early bits of information emerging about the Gulf oil spill. An early lead that Halliburton was negligent is brought to the attention of senior producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), and he and Neal (Dev Patel) want to tell the world. However, Don (Thomas Sadoski), the executive producer of the 10pm show, tries to block them: "You're wrong about Halliburton? And that will be the first sentence of your bio, forever. They will own you... They will have their own record label. They will have their own theme park." Yet the pilot revolves around News Night anchor Will (Jeff Daniels) committing to reform the news and quit pandering, so of course they go up against Halliburton. Because an informed electorate is essential to democracy, as executive producer Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) reminds Will. In later episodes, they take on the Koch Brothers, voter ID laws, and the Tea Party -- in defiance of explicit instructions from network owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda).

Sorkin even seems to hold that it was corporate pressure, not journalistic standards, which forced Dan Rather to vacate the once-hallowed anchor's chair on CBS News after his infamous report that a young George Bush didn't fulfill his required service commitment at the Texas National Air Guard. At one point, worrying that someone might be trying to bait Will with an incendiary tip just so he can be disgraced, Mackenzie wonders if he is "being Dan-Rathered." Elsewhere in Season 1, Charlie informs Will: "Dan got it right." (Dan Rather happens to agree: "I am not at CBS now because I and my team reported a true story," he stated in April 2012, a few years after his exit. "Nobody has ever proven that the documents were not what they purported to be.")

But Sorkin did not decide to write about the career costs of reporting true stories in today's media climate. His takeaway from the scandal over CNN's story on Tailwind is very different: he seems to have focused chiefly on how difficult journalism can be, how an error in judgment can ruin your career and threaten an entire organization. It doesn't seem to occur to him that the U.S. government might have tried to cover up an embarrassing story, or that the corporate media might have been complicit. In contrast to the support he expressed for Rather's position, Sorkin's view of the Tailwind aftermath seems completely oblivious to the objections raised by the reporters themselves.

He Said, She Said

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Producers Smith and Oliver's lengthy rebuttal to CNN states: "In a June 18 meeting, [CNN President] Rick Kaplan said this was a public-relations problem, not a journalism problem, and that he did not want this controversy to progress to congressional hearings with "3,000' members of the establishment on one side of the room and CNN and members of the Special Forces on the other. During that same meeting, Kaplan and [CNN CEO Tom] Johnson expressed their concern about the pressure they were receiving from Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell and the threat of a cable boycott by veterans groups." If that quote is accurate, it suggests that the executives were not concerned primarily with whether the reporting was factual, but with the size of the opposition to it.

Oliver and Smith further alleged that at the height of the hubbub, "Kaplan and Johnson gagged us from publicly defending the broadcast, and pulled Pamela Hill and Jack Smith from a scheduled appearance on CNN's Reliable Sources program. Nevertheless, CNN continued to air unopposed criticism about the broadcast without any fairness or balance on the Reliable Sources program and with a news report from the Special Forces convention."

Smith and Oliver did try to salvage the story and keep it alive. CNN's former military adviser, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, criticized Tailwind's producers in print as misguided conspiracy theorists: "If nerve gas had been used in the Vietnam War, thousands of people would have known--commanders, pilots, soldiers, load crew members, munitions storage people, intelligence officers, supply officials, transportation officials, database managers, historians, enemy soldiers." But in a 1999 piece Oliver penned about the controversy in the American Journalism Review, she quipped that the Maj. Gen. might be "relieved to hear that some of the people he describes have in fact volunteered statements corroborating the use of nerve gas and the killing of defectors. We continue to receive calls." Moreover, she added: "It appears Tailwind was not an isolated incident."

Reading through a range of material about the "Valley of Death' coverage -- the transcripts from the two broadcasts, the AK Report generated by CNN, and Smith and Oliver's rebuttals -- it is not readily apparent which side is right. For instance, some of the reporters' questions and follow-ups do seem like they might have confused the 87-year old Admiral Moorer, who was interviewed in an assisted-living home. He may also not have understood the full weight of the reporters' intentions for the story. Also rather troubling is the finding in the AK Report that "Information that was inconsistent with the underlying conclusions reached by CNN was ignored or minimized. The views of some of the individuals best placed to know what happened -- the two A-1 pilots who dropped the gas, the officer who commanded the operation, and the medic on the ground -- were unduly discounted." None of this necessarily means that the story was untrue, but it could mean that Moorer did not quite realize what he was saying or confirming, and it might also be the case that viewers didn't get the chance to weigh both sides and draw their own conclusions.   On the other hand, the producers complained in their rebuttal that several conclusive exchanges with sources, documented in their research, were not addressed by the AK Report at all. 

In any case, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made mistakes in chasing down Watergate secrets, as was made forever memorable when Jason Robards chewed Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford out in the middle of the night. (The "If you screw up again, I'm going to get mad" scene was memorable for Sorkin too, as he made two allusions to it in The Newsroom's Season 1 dialogue.) Tracking down high crimes and misdemeanors is surely not easy. Supervision, guidance, the checks and balances that are normally part of the journalistic process anyway, these are especially important in an explosive story like Tailwind. Yet Sorkin appears not to consider that the AK Report did not condemn the "Valley of Death' segment outright, that it noted that "this was not a broadcast that was lacking in substantial supportive materials", and that it conceded there was enough evidence to be taken as "justifying serious continued investigation". Perhaps Oliver and Smith's supervisors could have been more careful, or held off on the story until it was airtight. Or perhaps the network could have allowed for corrections and adjustments as they went along, like the Watergate reporting was able to do. But at the first sign of trouble, the entire investigation was dumped. "It is sad how the CNN executives caved," Oliver told interviewer Barry Grey almost a year after her "Valley of Death' report had been disowned by the network.  

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The Newsroom's Operation Genoa storyline   has only partly unfurled, but we're already half-way through the season, and considering the statements Sorkin has made in promotional interviews, it seems as if he has chosen to build his fictional spin-off of Tailwind around the angle of a "mistake' made at the bottom of the food chain, rather than looking into top-tier corporate cowardice. And this may in part be the result of who Sorkin had advising him about Tailwind in the first place: in last month's Daily Show interview, Sorkin disclosed that his consultants Rick Kaplan and Jeff Greenfield are the ones who told him about the 1998 CNN/Time "Operation Tailwind' saga. Both Kaplan and Greenfield were at CNN during that time: Greenfield was a senior analyst at CNN (1998-2007), and co-hosted the "News Stand' show that aired the "Valley of Death' segment -- he introduced it. Kaplan was president of the network 1997-2000 -- Oliver and Smith's complaints against him have already been mentioned. Both Kaplan and Greenfield weathered the Tailwind scandal while the journalists on the frontlines did not. (A year after the firing of the producers Oliver and Smith, there was also the dismissal of prominent broadcaster Peter Arnett, the on-camera narrator of the segment. Oliver has claimed his firing was Tailwind-related, that CNN planned it but delayed it deliberately in order to hide the connection.)

Despite a long-standing concern for social justice, Sorkin does not seem to consider that he's only listening to the management side regarding that Tailwind affair, that he's not hearing out the employees who maintain: "We were tried, convicted, and sentenced in a closed proceeding that failed any test of fairness or due process." They claimed that the report issued by CNN evaluating their journalism "suggests that it is designed to absolve CNN management, including Mr. Kohler, of any responsibility." The long-term ramifications of this are not, of course, just the unfairness of shutting out the labor side in a labor-management conflict. "The military and veterans' groups not only determine what CNN covers, but who covers it," Oliver complained to interviewer Barry Grey in 1999. "That the military should have veto power over the employment policy of the networks is alarming. The message is: fall in line, otherwise, you're history. Above all, don't mess around with national security issues."

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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