Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner

Article excerpt

'TAILWIND' TWISTER

Journalist calls CNN retraction of nerve-gas report 'ridiculous'

After CNN fired her husband 30 months ago, Marilyn Smith thought about downsizing her daughter's wedding. "Jack was out of work, and my daughter was worried," recalled Marilyn, her voice hardly able to control itself. "I told her, 'Honey, don't worry, I just scratched the Kaplans off the guest list.'"

Smith, 62, is a former nurse turned media maven who lobbies reporters to re-examine the story that cost her husband his place in journalism while warning them to be wary of faint-hearted news executives. Like Rick Kaplan, the man Jack Smith hired out of college 30 years ago and mentored to the presidency of CNN-USA, part of the Time Warner empire.

"It makes me so angry and sad that my husband's sterling reputation can be quashed by bosses who don't have the courage to stand behind their reporters," she said, referring to Kaplan, whom CNN canned last summer due to low ratings.

Kaplan next month will become a visiting lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and someday will be invited to testify in his mentor's $100-million defamation suit against CNN.

A moment for background. CNN fired Jack Smith and April Oliver after they co-produced a June 1998 broadcast titled "Valley of Death" that alleged U.S. troops on a mission called "Operation Tailwind" sprayed sarin nerve gas on Americans who defected to Laos during the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon went ballistic, insisting it never used chemical weapons.

It got Adm.Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs during the September 1970 mission, to recant his on-camera confirmation of the gas assault.

CNN, rushing for cover, retained Floyd Abrams, the country's best-known First Amendment attorney, to analyze the eight-month investigation. And he did it -- in two weeks. The 54-page report he co-authored with David Kohler, a former CNN counsel, is the go-to document for reporters. It said Oliver-Smith overstated their case and suggested that CNN retract its story, which it did.

What the report doesn't mention is that Kohler vetted the "Valley of Death" broadcast, working with the producers in the editing room. His postmortem role reeked of conflict of interest.

So it's easy to see why Marilyn Smith sees conspiracies everywhere. "I used to think the good guys would win, because we'd go to court and we'd be on Court TV and the whole world would see it," she mused. "But my daughter, a lawyer, pointed out that Time Warner owns Court TV. …

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