An Ill Tailwind
A behind-the-scenes look at how CNN, despite red flags, aired--and was forced to retract--an explosive report on the military's alleged use of poison gas.
By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
H ILL BEGAN SENDING BACK EDITS FOR the Tailwind project six weeks before it aired, says Oliver. Hill's ``primary changes were more visual, pacing, editing, dissolves vs. no dissolves, music vs. no music, those kinds of things, as opposed to" journalistic considerations, Oliver says. For example, she says Hill never suggested there were problems with the interview with Adm. Thomas Moorer, a slip that later prompted CNN to apologize and pay the 87-year-old retired admiral an undisclosed settlement. Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of Tailwind, was depicted in the broadcast as supporting its thesis, although his on-camera remarks were hardly definitive.
Why didn't senior producers ask Oliver to go back and get an on-camera interview with Moorer where he would state his confirmation unequivocally? Hill and Connor declined to discuss the broadcast.
That Hill and other senior producers accepted ``Valley of Death's" off-camera confirmations instead of solid statements of fact on-air surprised a few CNN journalists. Though some in the investigative unit said off-camera confirmations weren't unusual, at least one producer always worked under the assumption that the standard was: ``If they don't say it on camera, you don't use it."
To answer any questions that might arise about their reporting, Oliver says Hill asked her to write a memo outlining the evidence and background she had to substantiate the story. She says she sent a 156-page briefing book to Hill for distribution to Connor, Lane and Kaplan. (Kaplan says he didn't see it until weeks after the broadcast.)
Kohler, CNN's general counsel, also had a copy of the briefing book. Kohler was expected to assess the story for ``libel, slander, what the story would say about individuals," says Chairman Johnson. ``That isn't to say if he felt he needed to challenge it he couldn't. But his job was legal counsel." Kohler approved the script.
As CNN cranked up the publicity machine to herald the premiere of ``NewsStand," Oliver wrote and submitted the print version to Time magazine, agreeing to add Arnett's byline to help market the Time-CNN synergy. Marketing was an important part of the new CNN, according to a 1996 management memo circulated in Hill's unit, which said, ``We are all tired of toiling in obscurity." Important stories deserve ``a full and carefully coordinated press and promotion effort, and a parallel effort to reach interested organizations and government offices. Generating that support is of crucial importance; each of you should consider coordination with our press people one of your basic duties."
Toward the end of May, Hill ran into Kaplan in Atlanta and told him: ``We have a neat investigation for the first show," Kaplan recalls. Kaplan says he told Hill he was going to spend the next week in New York working on the launch of ``NewsStand's" other weekly programs, collaborations involving CNN, Fortune and Entertainment Weekly.
When Kaplan returned to Atlanta from New York on June 1, he says he read the script for the first time, then called Hill and Connor. Kaplan had some ``quibbles," he says, and zeroed in on what he felt was a major hole: There was no background on the Vietnam War. He also says he told Hill to send the script to CNN's Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno. The next day, Kaplan says Hill told him CNN's lawyers had read and approved the script, as had Moorer. (Before the piece aired, Oliver and Smith had taken the unusual step of allowing Moorer to read the script.) Time magazine was going to run its version. And, except for a few minor problems, which they had fixed, Sesno was happy as far as Kaplan knew.
It was only much later, say Kaplan and Johnson, that they found out Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Pentagon reporter, had raised serious concerns. McIntyre read the script the same day Kaplan did, made a few off-the-record phone calls and became convinced evidence to support the broadcast's conclusions was lacking. McIntyre wrote a two-page memo to Oliver and Smith outlining his criticism. Even if the story were true, the script as written didn't establish that. It asked the viewer to take on faith that CNN had evidence, rather than presenting it on air.
McIntyre urged Oliver and Smith to consult Perry Smith, CNN's military adviser, a West Point graduate and an Air Force pilot who flew 180 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos. Johnson also says he told Hill and Kaplan to run the script by Perry Smith. Johnson read it the week before it aired, and he thought the charges explosive enough to require the reporting be ``triple-checked."
Meanwhile, Hill had appealed to Kaplan to keep the retired general out of the loop. `` `You can't let us deal with Perry; it will destroy the story. We've had problems with Perry in the past,' " Kaplan recalls her saying. So Kaplan says he went back to Johnson, vouched for the investigation, supported his producers, and lobbied against calling Smith. In the end, Johnson says, ``Gen. Smith was not brought into the process as I had directed."
Meanwhile, Smith had learned about the story from CNN's heavy promotional campaign. He had consulted on ``probably 1,000 stories" for CNN since 1991, but in the last year, CNN had aired two other military exposŽs without consulting him, he says. One, about a super secret Air Force base in Nevada, was ``as bad a piece of journalism as I have ever seen on CNN," he wrote in a memo to Johnson. The Tailwind premise concerned him as well.
He started making inquiries, talking to people from a pre-eminent military historian to an old friend, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. He could find no corroboration. He spent a sleepless week, he says, and a few hours before the broadcast, he called Johnson and told him it was a faulty report. Johnson told him to call Kaplan. Perry Smith says he told Kaplan: ``You're making a huge mistake that's going to hurt CNN big time." Kaplan had Jack Smith and Oliver call him.
``They had answers to a lot of questions, but not to the most relevant ones," Perry Smith says. But he let it go. ``There was only four hours from air. I felt like there was nothing I could do to stop it. But I should have tried."
As airtime approached, Hill also was distracted by management duties, say those close to her: overseeing a prototype and pilot for the new show, continuing to direct the weekly newsmagazine and traveling between Atlanta, Washington and New York, where her husband lives. ``We were all moving too fast to get to air; everybody was moving very, very, very fast," she later explained to her staff.
Changes were made, including deleting a reference to the possibility that the ``defectors" were Russians. It was taken out at the direction of Connor and Hill ``because of time constraints," Oliver and Jack Smith say. Despite their protests, they say, statements by a pilot who insisted tear gas, not nerve gas was used ``were taken out by executive and senior producers to preserve a paragraph Rick Kaplan insisted be inserted dealing with the domestic turmoil of 1970."
In the end, Oliver says, ``I thought I had a great story, and I believed that my network backed me." When Kaplan saw the video, ``my editor told me Rick was beaming from ear to ear," Oliver says. Says Kaplan: ``Yes, I was happy with the show, with the piece. I thought the story was clear, the charges were clear, we were accurate. I thought we did a hell of a job."
The story aired June 7. Its publication in Time's June 15 issue, available June 8, ``really gave [it] legs and attention in a way that wouldn't have happened otherwise," says Oliver. The producers, including Smith and Hill, were ``deliriously happy," recalls one producer. But not for long. Soon gallows humor invaded Hill's unit, and ``Valley of Death" was dubbed ``The ValueJet of Journalism."
T HE DAY AFTER ``VALLEY OF DEATH" aired, hundreds of critical comments came pouring into CNN from military groups and the Pentagon, Johnson says. He called former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former CIA Director Richard Helms, both of whom told him they doubted the veracity of the broadcast. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell told Johnson: `` `Tom, I think you have one that is likely to blow up in your face. If you have further facts, you better get them out,' " Johnson recalls. ``I was alarmed, very concerned. I knew we had a big problem."
In the weeks following the broadcast, the Special Forces Association demanded a retraction and a veterans group talked of boycotting CNN. The New York Times reported: ``Adm. Moorer said...he had no firsthand knowledge of the Laotian mission, or of the use of sarin in Vietnam." The Washington Post quoted Moorer: ``I didn't confirm it...can't truthfully say I've seen proof." Newsweek quoted one of the story's sources, an Army captain in the raid, saying: ``It's all lies."
His anxiety mounting, Johnson asked CNN's counsel to outline his take on the story. Kohler wrote a 10-page memo to Johnson largely supporting the conclusions of Oliver and Smith, with a few qualifying comments on his role: ``Hindsight being 20/20, it probably would have been better to have described Moorer as supporting rather than confirming the use of sarin nerve gas.... While I think the use of `confirmed' was reasonable and supportable, it might have been more prudent to use a less loaded term. I also note that I cleared the use of `confirmed.' "
Doubts about the story were growing among the rank and file at CNN. Hill organized ``a formal meeting to address our questions," recalls one producer. She allayed concerns by telling the staff: `` `Our `Deep Throat' is impeccable, it's golden." But the onslaught continued.
Perry Smith says he pushed Johnson hard for a retraction. In return, he says, Kaplan sent him a ``very nasty" e-mail accusing Smith of having a ``petulant attitude" and characterizing his criticism as ``the bleating of a biased amateur." Smith resigned June 14 ``on the issue of journalistic ethics," went public on the Internet with evidence contradicting the broadcast, and urged Johnson to sack Arnett and Kaplan. Meanwhile, Jack Smith and Oliver were ordered not to respond publicly until CNN had investigated.
As the charges and counter-charges swirled, Johnson decided in mid-June to hire media lawyer Abrams to investigate, selecting the person he considered the ``single most-qualified in the United States to take a look at this. I needed somebody who I felt would have the respect of everyone on the outside."
Although CNN counsel Kohler had approved the script before broadcast, Johnson appointed him Abrams' lieutenant. At first, Oliver says, Abrams ``was not introduced as our investigator. He was our ally." Abrams says he could understand why Oliver would consider him an ally. ``We were allies in the sense that I was hopeful that I could come to the conclusions that the broadcast could be supported. I was assigned not to defend the broadcast, but to determine if the broadcast was defensible." By Friday, June 26, he says, ``My doubts were growing."
Jack Smith says he made repeated calls to Kohler and Abrams insisting that he and Oliver be interviewed for a rebuttal to the report. ``They kept putting us off," Smith says. Kohler refused comment, but a company official speaking on his behalf says Kohler didn't recall Smith and Oliver demanding an interview.
Oliver wrote a memo to Kaplan, saying CNN and its silence made her appear ``isolated and alone." But, she reminded Kaplan, ``This was not a one-reporter project. This was a `NewsStand' team project." She added, ``I remain deeply grateful for the mentorship and support of Jack Smith, without whom I could not have survived the past two weeks.... He should not be sacrificed for corporate politics, or for the purpose of assuaging the military's wounded honor. Neither should I."
O N JULY 1, SMITH AND ARNETT WERE summoned to Atlanta to meet with Johnson, Kaplan, Hill, Connor and other senior executives to review the Abrams findings. Oliver, eight months pregnant, was unable to fly. ###
Abrams had rebuked ``Valley of Death" and its producers for sloppiness, unfairness and deception, recommending that CNN and Time retract the story.
Smith refused to continue unless Oliver was included. He returned to Washington, where he met with Oliver until 1 a.m. Smith called Kohler, who, he says, agreed to let them ``raise our objections and make corrections" to the report before it was released to the public. (A company official says Kohler made no promises.) After reading the report, ``We were stunned," Oliver says. Jack Smith says he felt ``misled and deceived."
On July 2, CNN broadcast its apology and posted the Abrams report on its Web site; on July 5, it aired a special ``NewsStand" elaborating on the retraction. Johnson was determined to retract the story with ``the same emphasis we gave the original report," in the belief, he says, that ``the huge reservoir of respect and trust in CNN will not be erased as a result of this."
Hill resigned, commenting, ``I believed the knowledge of the reporters, the oversight we had in place, and the considerable body of information submitted to support the story insured its accuracy.... I now believe we were wrong to air the report as we did, and I fully support CNN's retraction." Connor, who was named to succeed her on an interim basis, declined to be interviewed. He will likely be replaced soon as senior executive producer of ``NewsStand," says Kaplan.
Meanwhile, the gag and gloves had come off and the verbal brawling intensified. Oliver, Jack Smith, Kaplan, Johnson and a multitude of pundits appeared on talk shows and held forth in news articles. On CNN's ``Reliable Sources," Kaplan accused Smith and Oliver of falling ``in love with their story." On ABC's ``Good Morning America Sunday," Oliver accused CNN executives in Atlanta of falling ``in love with their jobs."
Hundreds of angry CNN staff members demanded to know ``why the network's top managers stayed on the job," reported the New York Times on July 7. Johnson says he tried to resign twice, but Time Warner's corporate management turned him down. Kaplan did not quit, he says, because ``the easy thing to do is walk out." He did, however, send a letter of apology to Perry Smith ``saying he was wrong," Smith says.
Severing his relationship with CNN, says the general, ``has caused me a considerable amount of sadness." He adds, ``I had fought the good fight and had failed and failed miserably. It was clear this Greek tragedy was going to play itself out."
In the end, a system being rebuilt to meet the growing demands of competition broke down, resulting in disastrous consequences not just for CNN but for the people whose lives it changed forever.
Oliver and Jack Smith refused to resign and were fired. Oliver is convinced that at some point, ``the decision was made, `OK, we're going to kill this story, we're going to put this behind us, we're going to drive a stake through the heart of it, make it go away, and somebody's got to be responsible, so April and Jack are out the door. They're no-names. They'll never be heard from again. She's eight-and-a-half months pregnant; he's 62. He'll retire. She'll have a baby. It's the end of it.' "
Jack Smith says he blames Kaplan and Johnson for running away ``from the story so quickly without giving it a thorough review. They relied on the Abrams-Kohler review. They approved the story, but when the heat rose, they bailed." Ultimately, Smith says, ``The question should be: `Where was Rick Kaplan?' If he let this major unit, with so much riding on it, not get his attention and scrutiny, if that's the case as he now claims, then he wasn't doing his job."
While accepting responsibility, Kaplan has regrets. ``I will take this to my grave," he says. ``I should have just said, `We'll hold it.' I should have said, `Never mind that Smith and Lane and Hill and Connor and legal and Time magazine are all happy.' " The sadness, he says, ``is horrible. Jack Smith is a great human being, a family man, mentor, teacher, example, a thoroughly moral, ethical human being. But he lost his cynicism. He wants to be there for April, a woman he has great affection and respect for, who's nine months pregnant. He's on a white horse. Jack stands by, he's very loyal. But loyalty is what got us into a lot of trouble."
For Johnson, the episode was due to a series of breakdowns: ``Failure to include our Pentagon correspondent in the original research; failure to include our military affairs adviser in the analysis and reporting phase; failure to give adequate weight to those interviewed who said it simply did not happen; failure to bring to the attention of senior management--me and Kaplan--the serious questions about the sources."
But, he adds, ``I hold myself responsible for this. I trusted an experienced team of journalists more than I did a military analyst. And that was a mistake. I have always believed in trusting journalists and producers. I will make certain in the future that we're much more careful."
Toward that end, CNN has instituted changes, including a Johnson decree that ``we don't use correspondents as fronts as a rule," he says, and the appointment of Richard Davis as executive vice president for news standards and practices. His mandate is to ensure no inaccurate or unfair stories air.
In the past, the system at CNN worked well for breaking news, says Kaplan, but not necessarily for investigations, which require a much higher level of scrutiny. Kaplan ``bears this responsibility too," says Johnson, ``but I brought him in as president of CNN. I didn't bring him as a show producer. That was Pam's responsibility. He was relying rightly or wrongly on this unit. I am not placing blame on this unit alone. I shouldn't have let it on the air. Rick shouldn't have let it on the air. How I wish I could go back and get the information I have now."