By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.
PETER ARNETT, AMERICA'S BEST-KNOWN war correspondent, says he was just following orders. CNN executives tapped their star correspondent to be the on-air ``talent" for the premiere of ``NewsStand," the network's newsmagazine partnership with corporate sister Time.
To CNN viewers on the night of June 7, there could be little question about who dug up the shocking story of U.S. troops secretly dropping deadly sarin nerve gas on American defectors in Laos at the height of the Vietnam War 28 years ago.
``Now," intoned ``NewsStand" co-host Bernard Shaw, ``Peter Arnett has the story of Operation Tailwind." Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his Associated Press dispatches from Vietnam and became a CNN superstar for his coverage of the Persian Gulf War, was the face and the voice of CNN throughout the ill-fated 18-minute segment.
But Arnett would later say he did little more than lend his famous name--and his journalistic reputation--to a story that would be repudiated by the network in less than a month. The reporting was done by producer April Oliver and senior producer Jack Smith.
Oliver maintains that Arnett ``had more than a superficial involvement" in the ``NewsStand" story. ``He was always briefed," she says. ``Whenever I did a major interview or a major pre-interview, he would get the notes."
Arnett's participation in the reporting of the story came in the form of three interviews. But the questions and background for the interviews were provided by Oliver, Arnett says.
As the story was imploding, Arnett was unapologetically embracing a just-following-orders defense. ``I was never informed that my face on the air gave me responsibility for a major story," the 63-year-old winner of some 60 journalism prizes told the Washington Post. ``I'm a company guy. You want me to read a script, I'll read it."
In an interview with AJR, Arnett said in retrospect he should not have done the Tailwind story because of work conflicts. He spent more than four months in Baghdad and was working on other projects. ``If there was any mistake I made, it was not to essentially pull out of the project because clearly I could not give my full attention to it," he says.
Arnett's admitted lack of involvement has infuriated some TV correspondents. CNN colleagues Christiane Amanpour and Ralph Begleiter publicly criticized Arnett. Some journalists--inside and outside of CNN--said Arnett should have been fired along with Oliver and Smith, instead of receiving a reprimand.
But the idea of bringing in a big-name correspondent to front a major story is nothing new. A libel suit brought by Gen. William Westmoreland against CBS revealed that Mike Wallace did little more than parachute into interviews for a 1982 documentary that accused the U.S. military of conspiring to alter and suppress intelligence reports in Vietnam.
Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times, says Arnett was simply following an all-too-common practice. ``To hold Peter personally responsible for what is clearly an industry practice seems to me puts the focus on the wrong thing," he says. ``The question is whether an industry practice should be an industry practice, whether people should indeed do their own reporting. And that is the good that can come out of all of this."
As for Arnett, he says he hopes the episode is merely ``a footnote in my career rather than a headline. But I'm realistic. I was high profile, and one of the reasons I got so much criticism is that because I was high profile. That comes with the business."