Still of Jerry (Hamish Linklater) receiving the Genoa tip on .The Newsroom. by HBO
In June of 1998, CNN/Time premiered a new joint venture, a weekly program called "News Stand'. Their first segment had revelations about a "Valley of Death' (as one of the veterans interviewed called it) during the Vietnam War. The news story of this 1970 U.S. military black operation known as Operation Tailwind aired nationally over two consecutive Sundays. It quoted members of the military who alleged that commandos from the U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) had been dispatched to a village base camp in Laos with sarin gas, a toxic nerve agent that causes a painful death. (It's the same gas that was used by a Japanese religious cult in the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway.)100 people in the Laotian village reportedly died as a result of Operation Tailwind. Moreover, the story purported that U.S. military defectors living in the village were the primary target.
News of the secret attack, named "Operation Tailwind', shocked the nation and also created a firestorm of protest directed at the news organization from the Pentagon, veterans, and high-placed figures like Henry Kissinger (who had been National Security Advisor at the time of the black op). It was not long before CNN was issuing apologies and firing the story's producers, reassuring the nation that the story was untrue and the whole thing was a mistake. Consequently, "Tailwind' has gone down in the annals of broadcast journalism as a cautionary tale about accuracy.
Fifteen years later, it is back in the public consciousness thanks to the award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has spun his own creation off of the idea of the Tailwind journalistic scandal. In the current season of his HBO fiction series The Newsroom, the hour-long drama about a fictitious cable news program ("News Night') on a network known as the Atlantic Cable Network , Sorkin has been exploring leaks about an alleged war crime reminiscent of the Tailwind episode as CNN initially presented it. This time, the incident is more current than Tailwind was when CNN/Time ran its story; a military source reveals to Jerry, a News Night guest producer (played by Hamish Linklater), that U.S. forces used sarin gas on civilians in Pakistan during an "Operation Genoa.' (Sorkin invented the story and the codename.) Through a multi-episode flashback structure, Sorkin makes clear from the outset that the big scoop is false, and that getting sucked in by it will prove disastrous for the characters. That's certainly a rich plotline for a dramatist to mine. However, in seizing on it, Sorkin may be doing a disservice to the original producers of CNN's "Tailwind' expose, reporters who stood by their story throughout the ensuing fracas and who accused CNN of a cowardly retreat in the face of Pentagon opposition to it. And Sorkin may also be betraying the Quixotic principles the characters on his show so passionately espouse; in this case siding, not with the underdogs his dialogue so often champions, but with the powerful.
The Daily Show
Sorkin considered it no spoiler to tell the public before Season 2 premiered last month that the core of this season revolves around a Tailwind-inspired plotline: a News Night "mistake" in running a shocking story that ultimately turns out to be untrue. "Hopefully, the mistake is understandable," Sorkin told John Oliver (who was filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) on July 15th. News Night guest producer Jerry is scoffed at by his higher-ups (The Newsroom's series regulars) over the extreme claims a source makes regarding Operation Genoa -- they find them much too outrageous to believe. However, as the season progresses, switching back and forth between present-tense legal deposition scenes and flashbacks to how they got into this mess (a structure similar to The Social Network), various factors start to convince the News Night executives the Genoa tip has validity. For instance, ACN news division president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) comes to believe the story is true in episode 2.5 because a federal agent (or someone passing for one) snoops around the newsroom asking about the story -- it makes the government seem as if it really is worried about a secret getting out.
Now, when Sorkin went on Comedy Central to plug The Newsroom's Season 2 premiere, he could have been vague about the real news story that gave him the idea. After all, he has every right to dramatic license -- Operation Genoa and the ACN network are clearly fictional, so he can stray from what happened with CNN around its reporting of the Tailwind saga as much as he likes. But instead, he stated up front in the interview that CNN's 1998 broadcast on Operation Tailwind was his inspiration, and then he went on to describe where CNN went wrong with it. Sadly, the whole description was full of inaccuracies, beginning as soon as he broached the subject.
It's true that CNN retracted the news story after it aired, and fired the segment's producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver. But the pair filed wrongful termination lawsuits, and apparently Smith and Oliver had a pretty good case: one of them reportedly received $1 million from CNN, and the other settled for an undisclosed sum.
Moreover, the wrongful termination suit obviously entailed examining the accuracy of the producers' reporting on Tailwind. Far from proving incompetence on Smith and Oliver's part, the case apparently validated them. In the book Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN (excerpted here), the network's co-founder and its first president, Reese Schonfeld, relates that when the Tailwind story's key witness Admiral Thomas Moorer was confronted at the deposition by Oliver's notes from their conversation, the Admiral affirmed that he had made the statements the producer he'd met with claimed he had: "His answers indicated that Oliver had quoted him correctly about Operation Tailwind. Moorer admitted that sometimes defectors were killed and that he had been told by Singlaub [ former SOG commander ] that killing defectors was a priority. When asked about the use of sarin, the poison gas, Moorer said, "If the weapon could save American lives, I would never hesitate to use it.'" After Moorer's deposition, it was apparent that CNN's retraction was premature, cowardly and dead wrong." This is certainly not the way Sorkin presented CNN's Tailwind saga to Jon Stewart's left-leaning fan base .
But even more specifically, Sorkin told The Daily Show that what went wrong with the reporting on Tailwind in 1998 was that a producer, frustrated at being unable to get the source for the story to state on camera that sarin gas was used in Operation Tailwind, altered videotape of the interview in the editing room. Sorkin claimed that the CNN producer had changed the military expert's response from "If we used sarin gas, it would've been wrong" to sound as if the source was saying they had used sarin gas and it was wrong.
Even if it was 15 years ago, this is quite a claim to make against an individual journalist. It's especially extreme considering that an extensive internal investigation was conducted by CNN and authored by two of the company's high-powered attorneys, Floyd Abrams and David Kohler -- and this report contains no such allegation. In the text of that official 1998 'AK Report' currently posted on CNN's own site, Abrams and Kohler criticize a host of specific flaws in the reporting on Tailwind, cite some instances where sound bites from sources were cut off before an important follow-up statement, and conclude that CNN should issue a retraction -- but they also state categorically: "we have found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process." The report stressed that "the report was rooted in extensive research done over an eight-month period and reflects the honestly held conclusions of CNN's journalists," and affirmed: "we do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent."
Their chief complaint about the investigative reporters' handling of the story is not about tampering but about vague interview questions and premature extrapolations from inadequate responses. The attorneys explained: "when one reviews, in their entirety, the underlying transcripts, outtakes, notes, and other available information, much of the most important data said to support the broadcast offers far less support than had been suspected." If true (more on that later), this is obviously a big problem with the methodology behind the Tailwind news story, but it's quite different from the impression Sorkin gave.