An Ill Tailwind

By Paterno, Susan | American Journalism Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

An Ill Tailwind


Paterno, Susan, American Journalism Review


A behind-the-scenes look at how CNN, despite red glags, aired--and was forced to retract--am explosive report on the military's alleged use of poison gas.

Richard Kaplan remembers vividly his reaction to the script for "Valley of Death," the story scheduled to launch Cable News Network's new magazine show "NewsStand: CNN & Time." The president of CNN/U.S. had just returned to CNN's headquarters in Atlanta from New York, and he was swamped.

It was less than a week before "NewsStand's" June 7 debut, and he was focused on getting it off the ground. Back in his office, Kaplan picked up the script. "I read it, and I go, it's like, `Hell-o! Jesus!' "he recalls. In six days, CNN would make a stunning rev elation: After an eight-month investigation, it was reporting "that the U.S. military used lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam War."

Only a few months earlier, the United States had nearly gone to war with Iraq over Saddam Hussein's stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons. Kaplan continued reading: "Peter Arnett has the stow of Operation Tailwind, a raid into Laos, which, according to military officials with knowledge of the mission, held two top secrets: dropping nerve gas on a mission to kill American defectors."

It was a high-stakes, sensational expose, unusual for CNN. Since its emergence 18 years ago as the nation's first 24-hour news channel, CNN had become far more renowned for its saturation coverage of breaking news than its blockbuster investigations. It had been producing weekly newsmagazines for five years. But with audiences of under a million viewers, "Impact," "NewsStand's" predecessor, had never matched the huge ratings of network rivals like CBS' "60 Minutes," ABC's "PrimeTime Live" and "Dateline NBC." "Valley of Death" might give CNN a major boost.

Instead, the broadcast turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. After it aired, so many questions arose about the story's validity that CNN hired constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, an advocate for press freedoms as far back as the Pentagon Papers, to :reinvestigate. Abrams was assisted by CNN General Counsel David Kohler, the lawyer who had scrutinized the piece before it, aired and had raised no substantive objections.

Less than two weeks later, Abrams released his findings: "CNN's conclusion that United States troops used nerve gas during the Vietnamese conflict on a mission in Laos designed to kill American defectors is unsupportable." By early July, CNN had retracted the stow and apologized for a broadcast that; had drawn on some of the network's best talent, including "NewsStand" co-hosts and veteran journalists Jeff Greenfield and Bernard Shaw.

The story's producer, April Oliver, her senior producer, Jack Smith, and their unit's senior executive producer, Pamela Hill, had lost their jobs. Time magazine--which ran a print version of the story as part of Time Warner's vaunted "synergy" (see "An Embarrassing Time,")--also had to apologize. And Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and legendary war correspondent, was ridiculed for insisting he was simply a mouthpiece, the on-air talent who bore no responsibility for reporting the story (see "Arnett's Role,"). CNN reprimanded him for his role in "Valley of Death," and his public drubbing exposed "the dirty little secret of newsmagazines," as one television news veteran explains: Highly paid on-air correspondents often act as front people for work done by unseen producers and reporters.

CNN was widely commended for owning up to its mistakes. But it encountered criticism from the likes of Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times and one of journalism's most respected figures, for turning to a lawyer rather than a journalist to sort out the unhappy affair. And the verdict, rendered swiftly, failed to explain how two of the country's leading news organizations could produce what Abrams characterized as a seriously flawed piece of reporting. …

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