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.