Thursday, April 15, 1999
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
Robert 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.
Stealth: Flying 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 no losses.
- 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:
This twenty-first 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.
At the 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.
Question: I am curious how the funding happened and how that
influenced who you considered to be your audience?
Zalisk: 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.
Question: What do you see would have been different if it were done for
PBS as a Nova or a Frontline program?
Zalisk: 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.
Question: 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.
Zalisk: 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.
Question: 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 criticisms.
Zalisk: At 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.
Thorburn: 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 not confronted.
Zalisk: Essentially, 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 The
Question: 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?
Zalisk: 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
It is 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.
Thorburn: 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?
Zalisk: 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 suggesting.
Thorburn: 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.
Zalisk: 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