The Wrong Lessons

By Oliver, April | American Journalism Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

The Wrong Lessons


Oliver, April, American Journalism Review


A producer of CNN's retracted Tailwind broadcast staunchly defends the story and assails a critic's proposal for handling controversial reports on the military.

In the year since CNN executives retracted our story on Operation Tailwind, Jack Smith and I, its producers, continue to hear of additional corroborations that the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War to kill American defectors.

One independent investigator, a military veteran, has found support for our findings during his six-month research effort. He is buttressing his reporting to withstand the denials that can be expected from the Pentagon and CNN. Others, including reporter Dennis McDougal, who conducted a four-month investigation for TV Guide, believe our research on this CIA-approved mission had substantial merit. Even lawyer Floyd Abrams--no friend of the June 7, 1998, broadcast--conceded it was based on "exhaustive research." In addition, I have revealed in court papers that a leading critic of the broadcast, retired Gen. John Singlaub, was a prime source for our story.

Yet Smith and I were fired for not reaching a retroactive burden of proof imposed on us by CNN's executives. We were fired even though our bosses knew the depth of our sources and had been warned in a written memo that our story would likely generate controversy and Pentagon wrath.

Put simply, I feel we were scapegoated so CNN could preserve its highly valued and all-too-friendly relationship with the military. During the Tailwind controversy last summer, CNN's executives and the Pentagon operated as a virtual joint venture to crush the story. The fact is CNN needs the Pentagon's ongoing cooperation for the 24-hour network's immediate access to U.S. military operations.

In "The Lessons of Tailwind" in AJR's December issue, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, formerly CNN's military adviser, attempted to position himself as the military czar overseeing journalistic ethics and integrity, assailing our reputations and characters. The general made the sweeping allegation that the Tailwind broadcast involved "ethical lapses" but failed to give specifics--because none occurred.

First, some background. My Tailwind co-producer, Jack Smith, has built a career and earned a reputation on his integrity and ethics. When he was a rookie reporter in the early '60s, his editors at the City News Bureau of Chicago hammered into him the first commandment for coveting news: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Smith did just that, while coveting the cops, mobsters and politicians who dominated Chicago's front pages. He followed that commandment for four decades from City News to the Chicago Daily News to CBS and CNN. He ran the CBS News Chicago bureau in the '70s and its Washington bureau in the '80s. Then, as now, Jack Smith stood firm in his support of what he knows to be solid reporting. And he is the person that I have come to respect beyond all others in the broadcast business.

Of all the many inaccuracies that have circulated about Tailwind, the attacks on Jack Smith's character and editorial judiciousness have been the most wrenching and ill-founded.

Nor have I, in 15 years of news reporting, ever been embroiled in controversy or charged with inaccuracy, until now.

Perry Smith has done much to advance this unwarranted character assassination. Not only does his allegation of "ethical lapses" lack basis in fact, he also proposes some alarming new standards for journalism. He counsels that media bosses should form brain trusts, with their own personal generals on call, when dealing with controversial military stories. Underneath a posture of integrity and ethics, he calls for increased military control over national security stories.

Perry Smith arrived at different editorial assessment than Jack Smith and I did regarding the credibility of individuals involved in Operation Tailwind. …

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