Thursday, April 15,
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street
A recent cable television
documentary described the development of the $2 billion B-2
bomber (and other stealth planes) now being used in the Balkans.
Was the program adequate? What information does the American
public get about such high tech weapons--or about scientific
and technological information more generally? Must television
always simplify complex information? Robert Zalisk, the writer
and co-producer of the program, will screen his documentary
and raise some disturbing questions about how his work was edited
and "framed" by the cable channel that telecast it.
writer and co-producer of "Stealth: Flying Invisible," has produced
programs for television, mainly PBS, for over a decade. An award-winning
producer at NOVA for several years, he is a former Knight Science
Journalism Fellow at the Institute, and has also worked in radio
Zalisk: There have been arguments that we no longer need
public television because we have so many other outlets for
informing the public. While there are problems with public television,
if you're trying to inform the broadest public in what you hope
is a democratic society, then there are more problems with cable
and other outlets. Rather than eliminate public television,
we should work to have it become more of what it ought to be.
I am particularly convinced of this by my experiences with producing
the recent cable television documentary called Stealth: Flying
Invisible. There are different kinds of problems with any
project like this. First, there are instrumental problems, which
are things like not having enough money or not getting certain
people for interviews. Then there are systemic problems in most
distribution channels available today that make the instrumental
problems more likely to occur. This means that the final product
will probably always be problematic in some way.
Invisible explains the history of stealth technology in
the military and specifically focuses on three stealth planes
built for the Air Force. Stealth is a physical property of reduced
delectability by radar which is primarily achieved by using
shapes for the surfaces of planes which scatter energy away
from radar instead of back towards it. The film also discusses
related issues such as surface coverings called composites which
are construction materials made up of several things combined
together which are structurally more desirable than metals and
don't reflect radar waves as much.
- The first stealth
plane was the F-117 which first flew in 1981 and remained
top secret for most of the 1980s. It had surfaces like a flattened
pyramid with intersecting planes like the facets of a cut
diamond. It was used to attack the Iraq centralized communications,
command and control centers in the first minutes of the Gulf
War in 1991. No missile was ever shot at the F-117 at that
time, and it sustained no damage from enemy fire. During the
rest of the Gulf War, it scored over 1600 direct hits with
- The second stealth
plane was the $2 billion B-2 Bomber which was approved in
1981 and first flew in 1989. The B-2 uses a newer way to achieve
stealth called continuous curvature which also directed radar
waves away from their source while more naturally supporting
aerodynamic shapes. While the B-2 is four times larger than
the F-117, its radar cross section is smaller. It can also
reach anywhere on earth from the U.S. without refueling, carry
heavy payload of 40,000 pounds and operate at 35,000 feet
or 50 feet. The point is made that the Air Force expected
to build 133 B-2 Bombers, but that was cut to 75 after the
Cold War ended and to 20 in 1992.
- A new fighter called
the F-22 was initially approved in 1991, took its first flight
in 1997, and will probably go into operation in 2002. It is
designed to be stealthy, highly maneuverable, fast, and supersonic.
At the end of the film,
there are a wide variety of view points expressed about the
significance for military strategies enabled by the stealth
air planes combined with precision guided weapons, and the film
concludes with one analyst making the following claim:
century cloaking device gives hope to some analysts that, because
it can be so devastatingly successful, it can deter and prevent
conflict. If the United States is clearly seen to have the capability
to arrive over any body's terrorist training camp, over any
body's capital, over any body's nuclear power or chemical plant,
whatever it may happen to be, at any time within an hour or
two of provocation, unseen, unstoppable and certain to succeed,
the majority of the people, the majority of the time are simply
not going to do things to expose themselves to that kind of
attack. This technological capability is largely backed by stealth
precision and some other things produces a deterrent that has
really never existed before.
Both the B-2 and the
F-117 have recently been used in Kosovo where it appears that
an F-117 has been shot down. I heard that the B2-Bomber had
its baptism under two weeks ago, then about three or four days
ago I heard that they've been using the B-2 continuously.
The funding for this
project came from both the Discovery Channel and Aviation
Week and Space Technology, and this resulted in two different
versions of the film. One version is sold by Aviation Week.
A different version was broadcast on the Discovery Channel framed
in a series called The Insiders. We were supposed to
deliver a fifty-one and half minute program with six minutes
of possible cuts. We didn't realize that part of the bottom
line of the contract with the Discovery Channel was that
really had final cut. Depending on how many commercials they
had, they would be able to choose the first possible cut or
second and so forth. There were a couple of places where they
made some cuts that were contrary to what we wanted. One of
those cuts comes near the beginning of the film and it significantly
affects the message of the program.
beginning of the version from Aviation Week there are
a series of statements by five people over a period of 48 or
50 seconds. It is the kind of thing I generally try to do--someone
says we needed something of this sort, someone else says we
created a new technology, and that goes on to include someone
who raises a contradiction. This early segment served two purposes.
First, it is a general outline in which the comments represent
points expanded during the rest of the film. It also serves
to put many contending viewpoints up in front, including the
one person who raises questions about the utility of stealth
with respect to air power. Otherwise, he only comes at the very
end after all the other heavy weights like the architect of
the Gulf War and the people who designed the plane. Having him
up front together with this other group of people was important
for giving him the same weight so he wouldn't come across like
this little dog snapping at people's ankles. Unfortunately,
the segment with those statements at the beginning were cut
out of the version shown on the Discovery Channel.
I am curious how the funding happened and how that influenced
who you considered to be your audience?
We had a long standing relationship with Aviation Week,
so they had confidence that we could do it. We put together
a budget of $110,000, and then Aviation Week bumped the
final budget up to $150,000. Then the Discovery Channel
was supposed to fund 40% of the final project, so they put in
$60,000. However, we only had about $100,000 dollars because
McGraw Hill, which owns Aviation Week, put in $40,000
instead of 60% of the $150,000. That's very problematical. We
basically had to satisfy Aviation Week first, since the
Discovery Channel didn't come in until later. So the
Airplane industry was the first audience and this was a perspective
that was shared by both funders. In terms of our success, we've
gotten nothing but praise from bothAviation Week and
the Discovery Channel. The program did the best in the
time slot. It began with roughly three quarters of a share for
an audience when the hour began, and then after half an hour,
it went up to roughly one share point, which is something over
1 million viewers, then it continued to hold that until the
end of the program. From what I've heard, he Discovery Channel
was virtually ecstatic because it probably got more of an audience
than they were aiming for, and so far as I can tell, Aviation
Week is selling the tapes.
What do you see would have been different if it were done for
PBS as a Nova or a Frontline program?
There would be less science and technology, it would be more
understood that questions would be raised, and there probably
would have been a little bit more of putting it in the context
of history. There would just be more time and money. In this
area, usually you talk about excellence, time and money--choose
two. When you are working for cable, you can hope for one because
of the nature of the way you have to produce on a breakneck
schedule without enough money.
Would you elaborate more about why the film doesn't include
more interviews with critics? For example, you could find people
who would tell you that the United States may be self-deterred
by the B-2. Each one cost two billion dollars, so the Air Force
is terrified of using them and losing one.
I wish I could give you a good answer to that. Basically, it
didn't fit the profile. This was to be about how stealth developed,
how it was achieved, and how was it was to be used. I agree
with you, and particular with respect to the B-2. But the pressure
was that the program was not about describing a debate or a
policy. The little bit that comes up at the end was about as
much as I could get in. In the first draft, there was an entire
section about the theory of air power which included a discussion
of whether air power alone would even be sufficient. The problem
became where to put it so that it wouldn't break up the continuity.
The reaction at Aviation Week was that explanation got in the
way of the description and would cause people to forget where
they were, so they felt I should leave it out or raise it at
the end where I did. I'm not even sure Discovery Channel's
decision to cut the brief reference early in the film was ideological.
It may have been more that the person who had the power to make
that decision didn't particularly like the way the person presented
himself or something.
It strikes me that Aviation Week is sort of the National
Inquirer of the defense industry. It is the legendary place
that's actually full of embarrassing information about weapons
tests that went wrong or over budget. I wonder, given that they
sponsored the film, if they would have been open to more technical
Aviation Week, it came down to the personality of who we were
dealing with on the project. Although we had the help of the
editorial side, this was done by a marketing wing. That drove
everything. The degree to which that was true was something
I came to understand as I went through the process. There
was an atmosphere in which I self censored and didn't realize
it. This is what I found most debilitating and leaves me most
frustrated. The driving thrust at Aviation Week was
to get a tape that could be marketed and under the Christmas
tree by the end of last year. At one point, we virtually had
a go ahead, and then it was delayed. Then, not withstanding
the fact that we had a three or four month delay, they refused
to change the date of acceptance of the script. We still needed
to finish everything within less than three months. We ended
up having to say, "OK, sue us." We knew it wasn't possible,
and they knew it, and we would just have to go to court over
it. The effect that had was that there was a great deal of
pressure over the potential that one of the world's largest
publishers might sue us for a couple of million dollars. If
we had one more day, I might have gotten in a comment. This
is what I mean when I talk about systemic problems. I think
that the fact that this was driven by money and wanting to
have a product that is going to be sold amplified the problems
and made it difficult to have something that was more than
just the basic information.
Are you saying that the ground rules that Aviation Week
set for the project precluded the possibility of even discussing
the wisdom of trying to create horrendous weapons and all
of the other moral questions embedded in the piece that were
yes, but wasn't written anywhere, and it was hardly said.
It was the atmosphere. This is why it is so pernicious. You
fall into it yourself. It's like being a journalist in 1973.
No one ever told you that you can't talk about something,
yet you know that if you are going to talk about it, you can
only talk about it in a certain way. That is what I really
came to appreciate personally, and I hope I am helping you
to understand it too. For me, it is still a process of learning.
When I look back, I really wish I understood this better.
Aviation Week has a reputation for doing fairly sound
journalism. They are very close to the industry, but they
do raise questions and try to cover both sides in some measure.
Now what often happens in journalism generally is that one
source may give a single view, but there are thirty other
different views. It is assumed that in the variety of sources
of information that are available, the public will be well
served anyway. Unfortunately, what we have is all this narrow
casting that comes out to serve a particular purpose, and
that purpose comes to be only a certain information and only
up to a certain level. On the Discovery Channel, the
audience was told that this it was the insiders view, so they
were reminded that they were only getting one viewpoint, but
I somehow suspect that there is not going to be a series called
You were dealing with something where only a tiny piece must
have been declassified to allow you access. Did they just tell
you what they wanted you to know and that was it, or were you
were getting information and they censored what you weren't
allowed to say?
It was definitely only limited by what was available, which
you understand are tidbits. Here we had the advantage that Aviation
Week has a large network of editors and reporters who have
covered some of the tests or are in Washington, so we could
evaluate the information that we were given by the military.
I would write something and it would go to Bill Scott, who has
covered stealth for the last six or seven years. It would also
go to major editors at Aviation Week, and then I would
also frequently call other people that I know.
also important to understand that we do know that if the radar
signature of stealth planes is not literally down to a bumble
bee, the signature is probably not much bigger than a pigeon.
If you have some sense of the scale, it really isn't necessary
to know exactly what it is. The same is true of precision weapons.
We have seen in Kosovo that they do occasionally go astray,
but that is vastly different from the end of W.W.II where 20,000
bombers and hundreds of planes would drop thousands of bombs
on a city to hopefully hit a factory. Now we send in twenty
or thirty planes with 10 times that many bombs. Even though
we don't know the exact number that go astray, at least I'm
reporting that there is a vast difference in scale. The last
issue of the New Republic even has an editorial article praising
the new technology because there is less physical and civilian
destruction. Somehow, although fighting and war is not the preferred
way, that's got to better than killing tens or hundreds of thousands
of people when what you are really trying to do is knock out
this one little factory on the corner.
That is true, but there are other perspectives having to do
whether or not some super power should be this technological
tyrant that controls the world by having stealth bombers that
no one can go up against. That was the main thing I came away
from this thinking. These military guys are talking about how
we control the world! It terrified me that there might be some
measure of truth in the degree to which, as the only super power,
we are also the most dangerous culture that has ever existed
on the face of the earth. Would Aviation Week have permitted
you to question the congratulatory tone of those descriptions
of technology and military achievement?
I don't want to believe that they would, because it reflects
on my skill, foresight and awareness at a particular moment.
However, when I step back and am out of the situation, I see
that maybe with a little bit more time and a little bit less
pressure, then I might have found a way to get it in other perspectives
in a way that would have been acceptable. I don't think they
were against raising a question at all. There may have been
a way, but I didn't come up with it at that time and no one
pushed it. That's my point. I know that if I had been at Nova
or Frontline then the atmosphere would have been one
that encouraged me to explore perspectives of the sort you are
I want to conclude by saying that I am impressed by your
openness to a discourse that is critical, and your willingness
to second guess yourself and rethink things. This has been a
much more illuminating session than it might have been because
of a heroic willingness on your part to say "I didn't quite
succeed here." That's a very rare quality, and I admire it.
Thank you. I believe we need an informed society, and the only
way that can happen is if we inform ourselves. Its nothing less
than a sacred responsibility of a journalist--the forth estate
--to perform that function.