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American Journalism Review
CNN's Close Call  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1992

CNN's Close Call   

By Patrick Boyle
Patrick Boyle is a reporter for the WashingtonTimes.      


Don Harrison was on the anchor desk at CNN Headline News January 8 when he got the news bulletin: President Bush had died in Japan. The message was erroneous. But Harrison found that out only seconds before he was to tell the world the grim news.

"In my heart, I knew it wasn't accurate," Harrison says now. "I just knew that reading it was wrong."

But an odd string of events – Bush's collapse at a dinner in Tokyo, a call from someone identifying himself as the president's doctor, and hasty orders in an Atlanta newsroom – had Harrison staring into the camera at 9:45 a.m. to announce the death of a president.

"This is just in to CNN Headline News," he said. "And we say right off the bat, we have not confirmed this through any other source..."

Suddenly, someone off-camera yelled, "No, stop!"

Harrison did, and it was a good thing. Not only was Bush alive, but CNN knew he was.

How did one of the nation's most watched news sources come within a breath of wrongly reporting the first death of an American president in nearly three decades? Blame electronic mail and overeagerness to break a big story.

The trouble began about three hours after Bush's now-famous collapse when a man called CNN headquarters in Atlanta, identified himself as the president's doctor and said Bush had died.

A staffer typed the tip into a computer file called "Read Me" that carries important messages, explains CNN spokesman Steve Haworth. Recipients are alerted by a blinking signal on their computers.

CNN made a few calls and determined "within minutes" that the tip was bogus, Haworth says.

But two floors down at Headline News, which uses the same computer system, someone had seen the note. Haworth says a producer alerted Harrison, who was waiting for a commercial break to end, and "he was told to go with that story."

"I said, 'Not without a confirmation, we don't,' " Harrison recalls. "A show producer said, 'We've got to get it on.' I said, 'Let's get a confirmation.' " Then a third person, "a high-ranking staffer, said, 'Do it,' " Harrison says. Neither Harrison nor Haworth would name the staffers involved.

"I didn't want to read it," Harrison says. "I was told to read it."

He started ad-libbing on the air. "I thought, 'Here I've been ordered to read it, now how do I get out of it?'.. That's why I was waffling."

Meanwhile, the note about Bush's death disappeared from the computer – apparently removed by CNN upstairs – prompting a producer who had decided to air the story to realize "this was not legitimate news," Haworth says. That's when the producer shouted, "No, stop!"

"We are now getting a correction," Harrison told viewers. "We will not give you that story. It was regarding some rather tragic news involving President Bush. But updating that story, President Bush is reported resting comfortably."

Not so the folks at CNN and the Secret Service. The caller had left a number in Garden City, Idaho, where he was arrested and admitted to a mental hospital. Police there say the man, 71-year-old James Edward Smith, had called various agencies claiming to be the president's doctor.

Harrison, who has been with Headline News for 10 years, says he was angry at first, "but I can understand how certain things can happen... This is a great place to work. There are a lot of dedicated people here."

"All news organizations fear this," says Ed Turner, CNN executive vice president, news-gathering. "Things like this give you nightmares.

"There are people out there who think this is funny. In 11 years of doing this 24 hours a day, we have not been seriously hoaxed."

Haworth says staffers have since been told in meetings and in memos about checking tips and using "Read Me."

No one was suspended because of the incident, Turner says. "The people involved felt so terrible. What more could you say? All you can do is learn from it."

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