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CNN, Time Both Retract Story on Nerve Gas Use

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a serious blow to two leading American news organizations, officials of CNN and Time magazine on Thursday retracted a story they ran last month alleging that the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas during a 1970 attack on defectors in a small Laotian village.

The explosive story, which aired on the premier broadcast of “NewsStand,” a joint venture of Time and CNN, “cannot be supported,” said Tom Johnson, CNN News Group chairman. “There is insufficient evidence that sarin or any other deadly gas was used. Furthermore, CNN cannot confirm that American defectors were targeted or at the camp, as ‘NewsStand’ reported.”

Johnson, in a statement broadcast on the network, apologized to CNN viewers, Time and to all of the military participants in the 1970 military operation.

At Time, Managing Editor Walter Isaacson said “the facts simply do not support the allegations that were made” in a companion piece written by CNN journalists that appeared in the weekly after the broadcast. He said a story detailing the faulty reporting would appear in next week’s editions.

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Heads began rolling immediately after the announcement. April Oliver, the chief producer of the CNN story, was fired, while two other producers on the story, Pam Hill and Jack Smith, are resigning. Peter Arnett, an award-winning print and TV reporter, was reprimanded, according to CNN officials.

In a blistering comment, Oliver stood by the story. “I talked to too many people for too long about this,” the four-year CNN veteran told the Associated Press. “We still have confidential sources. We set out a story that was tough to get. It’s a black operation, no paper. Those involved are taught plausible deniability and this was so long ago.”

No firings are expected at Time, which was “greatly embarrassed” that it had relied so heavily on a story reported and produced by CNN, a correspondent said. Officials vowed to screen such outside material more heavily to avoid future black eyes.

Fresh on the heels of damaging disclosures about inaccurate reporting at other news organizations, the CNN/Time story “is a very, very serious blow to anybody who cares about the reputation of journalism and the press in this country,” said Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

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“It’s another indication that journalists are not able to withstand the pressures of the new market-driven environment, which forces them to compete a lot more, to strut their stuff,” he added. “The idea now is to make your show a recognized brand name. Well, snake oil’s a brand name, too.”

The CNN nerve gas story, detailing the history of Operation Tailwind, sparked criticism over its accuracy immediately after airing on June 7. CNN military analyst Perry Smith, a retired major general who served in Vietnam, called the report “sleazy journalism” and resigned in protest. Meanwhile, other news organizations began reporting that key sources for the story were unreliable or unable to confirm it.

In one case, Robert Van Buskirk, a soldier who was in Laos and appeared in the report, said he recalled the nerve gas attack only as a result of “recovered memory” during his interview with a CNN reporting team. The network had made no mention of that fact during the broadcast.

Others challenged the reliability of a crucial on-air source, Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970. Although his comments on the broadcast appear to support the fact that nerve gas was used in Operation Tailwind, subsequent probing suggested that Moorer’s knowledge of such attacks was limited. In an interview with The Times he said he had no firsthand knowledge that the gas was used anywhere in Southeast Asia.

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As criticism grew, CNN and Time last week hired respected 1st Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to investigate the reporting of the piece and the sources that were used. In a 60-page document made public Thursday, Abrams said the story could not be supported, based on what the network knew.

“CNN should retract the story and apologize,” he recommended. Abrams did not, however, conclude that the story itself was false--only that CNN’s methods were suspect.

He added that, based upon a thorough review, there was no evidence that CNN had falsified or invented material. The key problem, Abrams said, was that a news organization that had devoted eight months and so much energy to a story should have been more careful and skeptical about information it was receiving.

“The CNN journalists involved in this project believed in every word they wrote,” said Abrams. “If anything, the serious flaws in the broadcast that we identify in this report may stem from the depths of those beliefs and the degree to which the journalists discounted contrary information they received, precisely because they were so firmly persuaded that what they were broadcasting was true.”

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“We’re obviously gratified that CNN retracted a report that we believe was not accurate,” said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. “All the work we’ve done in reviewing the report suggests . . . those charges were wrong.”

Some in the news business praised CNN for acting quickly and clearly to deal with a major embarrassment. Roger Ailes, who runs CNN rival Fox News Channel, applauded the retraction as “a principled and statesmanlike position that only improves journalism overall.”

Given the explosive nature of the story, however, others said a retraction is practically meaningless. “This is a deplorable mistake of great consequence, well beyond the journalism issue,” said Jim Carey, professor of journalism at Columbia University. “Once you put out a story like this, there’s really no taking it back. It [the use of nerve gas] will be a charge made against us by other nations, over and over.”

Few observers, however, believe either CNN or Time will experience any lasting damage in the marketplace. Americans have a short memory span, they suggested, and even if they don’t stop watching or reading, they’ll tend to believe the mass media less and less.

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NBC’s “Dateline,” for example, issued an embarrassing public apology several years ago when viewers learned that footage of fuel tank explosions was rigged. Today, the show has outstanding ratings.

“TV success is based as much on personalities and time slots as credibility,” said Ben Bagdikian, former journalism professor at UC Berkeley. “That’s the sad truth. This story shows the pitfalls of modern news . . . the pressures bearing down on you to get things first, not to get things right.”

The public has had its fill of inaccurate journalism in recent weeks: At the Boston Globe, columnist Patricia Smith was fired for inventing quotes in four articles; Stephen Glass, a New Republic writer, was terminated for making up 27 stories; Mike Gallagher, a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, was fired for allegedly stealing voice mail messages, as part of an expose of Chiquita Brands International Inc. The paper has offered the company $10 million to pay off any claims, although none has been filed. Meanwhile, a criminal investigation has commenced.

As they sorted through the wreckage, officials at CNN and Time were trying to determine what went wrong and how to prevent another occurrence.

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It was a jarring baptism for CNN/USA President Richard Kaplan, who had joined CNN last year from ABC; “NewsStand” was a top priority, and he had used the nerve gas story to focus national attention on the new show.

A spokesman for the 24-hour cable network said a top-to-bottom review of reporting and editing procedures is in the works.

“I can tell you that Tom Johnson had some very strong questions about this show before it broadcast, some big concerns,” said the spokesman. “But when he raised them, people associated with this story persuaded him it was solid.”

At Time, there was more grumbling about “synergy” and the new corporate marriage between the newsweekly and CNN--which are both owned and operated by Time Warner--than the story itself.

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“I don’t think that they [Time editors] did as thorough a review of the material from CNN as they normally would have done on ours,” said a source at the magazine. “They didn’t demand to know who the sources were. There were red flags raised by the Washington bureau, but they weren’t heeded.”


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