"I Will Be Vindicated"
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.
T HE OPERATION TAILWIND CONTROVERSY INVOLVES some of the biggest players in U.S. journalism: CNN/U.S. President Richard Kaplan, war correspondent Peter Arnett, Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, CNN chief Tom Johnson.
But the central figure, the journalist who developed the story about nerve gas bombing during the Vietnam War and drove it through the machinery of two of the most prominent news organizations in the world, is a little-known 36-year-old producer who spent most of her career in public television.
April Ann Oliver, the lead producer of CNN's story on Operation Tailwind and the author of the Time version of the story, was fired along with senior producer Jack Smith after they refused to resign. And unlike Pam Hill, the head of CNN's investigative unit who quietly stepped down and has remained silent, Oliver and Smith have been waging a very public quixotic fight since the July 2 firings, passionately maintaining that their story was right and that CNN buckled under the pressure of past and current military officials and organized veterans.
``I didn't want this fight. I didn't pick this fight. But I certainly think it's the good fight," Oliver said in an interview in her Northwest Washington, D.C., home. ``I don't think there's any reason for me to skulk away in shame. There is nothing that I can see that I did wrong here. I went after a story. I got a lot of sources. I kept people clued in at every step of the way. If they had any qualms, they could have killed it."
Oliver, despite being 8 1/2 months pregnant, quickly transformed her dining room into a war room. Her father bought a Panasonic fax machine and stayed up until 2 a.m. one night sending information to reporters covering the story. She wrote op-ed pieces for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. And she and Smith drafted a point-by-point, 81-page response to their critics.
Oliver fielded a steady stream of interview requests from reporters covering the media story. But she was most excited about the calls from sources providing what she described as viable new leads to the use of the lethal nerve gas by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
Oliver is a most unlikely candidate to be, as she says, ``the poster child for sloppy journalism." She entered Princeton University at age 16 and graduated cum laude from its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after spending six weeks on the Afghan-Pakistani border writing her senior thesis about Afghan refugee camps. Following graduation, she spent 11 years in public television, developing an expertise in foreign policy. She worked for five years as a reporter for the ``MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." After joining CNN in 1994, Oliver was a producer for several shows before moving to the CNN Special Assignment team in January 1996.
She's also an unlikely candidate to be accused of left-wing bias. The daughter of conservative Republicans, she grew up in South Carolina and served as Lee Atwater's personal assistant--``mostly the go-get-coffee girl"--during Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.
As a child, Oliver was a nationally ranked swimmer. She credits her competitive swimming background with enabling her to cope with her firing and to do battle with such powers as the U.S. military and Time Warner.
Oliver understands that her future in journalism is uncertain, but she remains optimistic. ``You can call me an eternal optimist," she says, but ``I will be vindicated."