Aaron Sorkin raised the ire of the Internet again this week after making what I thought were some fairly valid comments about the vetting process on a blog as opposed to that in a newspaper. His complaint — in addition to quibbles with HuffPo running feminist pieces alongside “The 10 Best Sideboob Photos” (a not unfair criticism) — is that those in the newspaper business are held to a higher standard, while many of those on the Internet have no standards at all. In the NYTimes or in The Wall Street Journal you can’t pass rumor off as fact, whereas on the Internet, if a little-heard of website called Cosmic Book News publishes a rumor that Bryan Cranston has been cast as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman as fact without identifying any sources, well, that’s totally OK. People on the Internet will believe the Cranston rumor as fact until it’s either refuted or confirmed, and what’s the harm? It’s just a Hollywood movie. No one gets hurt. If Cosmic Book News guesses right, they get a feather in their cap. If they guess wrong, they get a little egg in their face, which they will wipe away with another casting rumor.
But when the stakes are higher, when we’re talking about world events; or statements that a politician may or may not have said, which could damage or help his election prospects; or if we’re talking about the existence of weapons of mass destruction on foreign soil, or if — God forbid — we’re talking about our nation’s use of chemical weapons, then one would hope that the word of a vetted publication with higher standards is trusted more than a site like the Cosmic Book News or its news-site equivalent.
However, in this week’s Newsroom, we find out that even trusted outlets like ACN (standing in for old-school CNN) with higher ethical and professional standards, who go through rigorous fact-checking procedures, who establish Red Teams to poke holes in a story, and who collect numerous sources to back a story can still end up publishing something as wrong — or as unsubstantiated by the evidence — as Bryan Cranston being cast as Lex Luthor.
In this week’s episode, ACN’s Operation Genoa story completely collapses under the weight of complete institutional failure. With several sources, and plenty of evidence to support the fact that the United States used sarin during an extraction, ACN — after carefully vetting the story, gnashing teeth over the fine details, and and connecting all the dots — ran their Operation Genoa scoop.
They were completely f**king wrong.
How does that happen? This is really where Sorkin — whose father was a lawyer, whose siblings are lawyers — is at his best: Stacking up the evidence, and then meticulously knocking that evidence down on cross-examination. Rebecca Halliday took each member of the ACN team through the story and, one by one, poked holes. It wasn’t just that Jerry Dantana cooked the story, although the way he edited the interview of their best source was the biggest hole. It was also that one source had suffered from a brain trauma, another source was provided leading questions that allowed him to confirm the story without providing any original facts, and yet another source had an axe to grind with ACN. If anyone of those sources had been refuted, the entire story would’ve imploded.
But the Operation Genoa story had a life of its own, propped up by the ambition of Jerry Dantana, ACN’s desire for a get, and in part because the United States — with its drone strikes, with its interrogation techniques, and because of its questionable human rights practices — helped to provide context for the story. It wasn’t such a stretch to believe that a country that would use drones on its own citizens might also use sarin gas.
Rebecca Halliday’s cross, I think, was executed brilliantly. Especially in the way that Mac led her source, we learned a little something about how even the most trusted, the most vetted, and the most established news outlets can subconsciously drive their own stories. The biggest problem I had with the episode — and this is a bigger problem the show has with merging fictional storylines with real-world news events — is that the Operation Genoa special didn’t have the ripple effect we’d expect to see if this were a real-world story.
However, Sorkin brought it home in a real way by demonstrating that the public’s trust in a news organization does matter, and I think his point was well executed. If Cosmic Book News is wrong about the Cranston rumor, I very much doubt that people will believe them if they turn right around and claim that Mark Strong is cast as Lex Luthor. Likewise, ACN — which had reliable evidence that the anti-Muslim film was not behind the Benghazi attacks — couldn’t run with that story because they knew the public wouldn’t trust them. This is really what has happened with CNN, once the most trusted source in television news: Their race to be first in a few very high profile incidents over the past few years has costs them the trust of the public, and because neither MSNBC or Fox News have to be right (because their less news organizations and more propaganda machines for their own political biases) who the hell else do we have left to trust?
I thought it was an entertaining hour, and Jane Fonda – with her Daniel Craig cracks, her get-the-public’s trust back speech, and her f*ck ’em attitude — basically guaranteed herself another Emmy nomination for best guest star. She was amazing; she and Charlie Skinner should get their own television show where they drink martinis and fire shotguns on the kids on their lawn. But I also thought the episode did a admirable job of demonstrating what “institutional failure” looks like, how a well-meaning story can go awry, and how a professional organization with countless gatekeepers, rigorous protocols, and journalists held to higher standards can still be just as wrong as “BobsThoughts.com.”