A Note on Years of Living Dangerously

I wanted to take a moment to tell you about an ad campaign we’re starting on Wednesday. Normally I don’t do this. Actually as a matter of policy. But in this case there’s a personal dimension which has inevitably informed how I’ve approached it. So I wanted to share some backstory, which oddly enough ties in to something like a year of reporting I did a decade ago on the Niger uranium forgeries.

For about 10 years one of my closest friends, maybe my best friend, has been David Gelber. He was a longtime senior producer at 60 Minutes, which is how I originally met him. Long, longtime readers will remember that – my God, a decade ago – I spent the better part of a year doing reporting to try to get to the bottom of who was behind those Niger uranium forgeries. That’s when David and I really ended up bonding. Because we worked on that project together.

We actually got pretty damn far on the story. We found the guy who tried to sell the documents to Italian reporter Elisabetta Burba – Rocco Martino. And we had him in New York for interviews. The whole saga was surreal, comical, tragic and more fascinating and bizarre than you can possibly imagine. While we have him in New York, Italian intelligence is leaning really hard on his family to get him to STFU and get back to Italy. So we’re trying to wriggle the key details out of him in New York while various family members are calling him, begging, threatening, cajoling. And Rocco himself seems to be wobbling on the edge of a nervous breakdown as all of this is happening.

Whether Rocco was really that far gone or whether he was playing us like everyone else was never entirely clear – I suspect it was genuine but with a healthy scoop of additional melodrama. That’s in the nature of the grifters and small time expendable operators who exist on the fringes of intelligence work.

So after a couple days of this, I’m in bed early on a Sunday morning when David rings my cell: Rocco’s threatening to kill himself and he’s disappeared from his hotel room. Ten or 15 minutes later David and I and the young Italian student who was acting as our translator and Rocco’s chaperone all converged on the promenade at southwest corner of Central Park where the park abuts onto Columbus Circle. Just why that was the obvious place to look for him I cannot remember. But it was.

It all sounds comical in retrospect. But it was distinctly unfunny at the time. And I vividly remember scanning the crowd, imagining him dead in some alleyway or jumped in front of a subway car. A few minutes later I spotted him, just inside the park, shaking his head in tears, walking around in what seemed like a daze, bringing that phase of the saga to an end.

Around the same time we got asked by Italian journalist in the US for a sit down over coffee where he let us know that our phone calls were being monitored – friendly heads up or warning? Not clear.

The punch line on this whole tale is that the weekend the already half-gutted piece was supposed to run, CBS pulled it for a hot, hot piece on … right, the Bush Texas Air National Guard records. Excellent choice! I will let you appreciate the irony of that for a moment.

In any case, that’s David and I.

A few years ago, David decided to leave 60 with his colleague Joel Bach and embark on a totally improbable, labor of love: a far-ranging documentary series on climate change and how it’s affecting the planet at locales around the world. David and I have been talking about it from the idea stage, to finding funding, to launching out on actually filming. And yes, it’s what you’ve probably now heard of as Years of Living Dangerously, the mini-series that debuted last night on Showtime.

As you’ve probably seen we ran ads last week for Showtime’s promotional campaign, just as we do for many series on HBO and other channels. But the Years series is more than just an entertainment venture. There’s an activist dimension that is at least as important to the backers of the project. And we’re partnering with them on a separate companion campaign here at TPM about the series.

For the next eight weeks, David Gelber will be blogging once a week in the Editor’s blog, giving background on the week’s episode, how it came together, what it was like shooting in the field and other details that didn’t make it into the episode proper. The posts will end with a call to take action relevant to that particular episode – to a politician, a corporation, whatever point of action is relevant to the crisis raised in that episode.

Now, these are “sponsored messages.” They are part of a promotional campaign and they will be clearly and aggressively labeled as such. Same rules apply as with anything else we do like this. But as I said, this one has a personal dimension and it’s inevitably informed how I’ve approached the project. So I thought it was important to share this background with you.

Please take a moment to read David’s posts and reflections – he’s one of the most committed, talented, best people I know. The series he’s created is powerful and important. And with that I’ll retreat back to my normal hands-off approach to all business side projects we do here at TPM.

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