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.
R ICHARD KAPLAN REMEMBERS VIVIDLY HIS REACTION TO THE script for ``Valley of Death," the story scheduled to launch Cable News Network's new magazine show ``NewsStand: CNN & Time." The president of CNN/U.S. had just returned to CNN's headquarters in Atlanta from New York, and he was swamped.
It was less than a week before ``NewsStand's" June 7 debut, and he was focused on getting it off the ground. Back in his office, Kaplan picked up the script. ``I read it, and I go, it's like, `Hell-o! Jesus!' " he recalls. In six days, CNN would make a stunning revelation: After an eight-month investigation, it was reporting ``that the U.S. military used lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam War."
Only a few months earlier, the United States had nearly gone to war with Iraq over Saddam Hussein's stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons. Kaplan continued reading: ``Peter Arnett has the story of Operation Tailwind, a raid into Laos, which, according to military officials with knowledge of the mission, held two top secrets: dropping nerve gas on a mission to kill American defectors."
It was a high-stakes, sensational expos¨¦, unusual for CNN. Since its emergence 18 years ago as the nation's first 24-hour news channel, CNN had become far more renowned for its saturation coverage of breaking news than its blockbuster investigations. It had been producing weekly newsmagazines for five years. But with audiences of under a million viewers, ``Impact," ``NewsStand's" predecessor, had never matched the huge ratings of network rivals like CBS' ``60 Minutes," ABC's ``PrimeTime Live" and ``Dateline NBC." ``Valley of Death" might give CNN a major boost.
Instead, the broadcast turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. After it aired, so many questions arose about the story's validity that CNN hired constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, an advocate for press freedoms as far back as the Pentagon Papers, to reinvestigate. Abrams was assisted by CNN General Counsel David Kohler, the lawyer who had scrutinized the piece before it aired and had raised no substantive objections.
Less than two weeks later, Abrams released his findings: ``CNN's conclusion that United States troops used nerve gas during the Vietnamese conflict on a mission in Laos designed to kill American defectors is unsupportable." By early July, CNN had retracted the story and apologized for a broadcast that had drawn on some of the network's best talent, including ``NewsStand" co-hosts and veteran journalists Jeff Greenfield and Bernard Shaw.
The story's producer, April Oliver, her senior producer, Jack Smith, and their unit's senior executive producer, Pamela Hill, had lost their jobs. Time magazine--which ran a print version of the story as part of Time Warner's vaunted ``synergy" (see ``An Embarrassing Time,")--also had to apologize. And Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and legendary war correspondent, was ridiculed for insisting he was simply a mouthpiece, the on-air talent who bore no responsibility for reporting the story (see ``Arnett's Role,"). CNN reprimanded him for his role in ``Valley of Death," and his public drubbing exposed ``the dirty little secret of newsmagazines," as one television news veteran explains: Highly paid on-air correspondents often act as front people for work done by unseen producers and reporters.
CNN was widely commended for owning up to its mistakes. But it encountered criticism from the likes of Gene Roberts, former managing editor of the New York Times and one of journalism's most respected figures, for turning to a lawyer rather than a journalist to sort out the unhappy affair. And the verdict, rendered swiftly, failed to explain how two of the country's leading news organizations could produce what Abrams characterized as a seriously flawed piece of reporting.
Extensive interviews with those involved indicate that a series of miscalculations converged to create the ``Valley of Death" debacle. Senior executives, blinded by loyalty and distracted by corporate concerns, abandoned their roles as gatekeepers, unable to see the contradictions and ambiguities in the broadcast. Producers at CNN and editors at Time failed to include their own military beat reporters in the research, then discounted the concerns of the few journalists and experts who reviewed the script the week before it aired.
The story, born amid the hype that has come to distinguish television newsmagazines, left behind profound feelings of sadness, anger and betrayal, breaking friendships and damaging careers and reputations. And coming as it did around the same time as the disclosure of two high-profile cases of journalistic fabrication and an investigative report apparently based in part on pilfered voice mail messages, the saga was yet another body blow to the already reeling field of journalism.
Kaplan, who stood by while his friend and lifelong mentor Jack Smith was fired, says the episode has been ``horrible. It's like your father betrayed you. It's equally horrible for Jack, who must feel like I betrayed him."
For Smith, the disappointment lingers. ``You put on the suit, you go up to the executive suite, your priorities change. With Kaplan, they changed dramatically," Smith says. ``That was a deep disappointment for me. Kaplan the reporter and producer that I knew doesn't exist anymore."
B ACK IN SEPTEMBER 1970 , the night before Operation Tailwind, U.S. pilots dropped gas--CNN's report said it was deadly sarin nerve gas, others say it was tear gas--on a village in Laos to lay the groundwork for the next day's assault, according to the broadcast. The next morning, 16 members of a super-secret U.S. squad attacked the village, firing automatic weapons and tossing grenades.
Were Americans in the camp? While ``Valley of Death" asserted there were, in fact none of the on-camera eyewitnesses who said they saw Caucasians could say for sure. To assist the soldiers on their retreat, pilots dropped nerve gas on the approaching enemy troops before airlifting the Americans to safety, the CNN report said.
The covert sortie had little documentation and took place in Laos, in a conflict the military managed to keep hidden from the American public for years. No one can say with certainty that the story is false; but even if it were accurate, as Oliver and Smith continue to insist, perceived lapses in the broadcast shifted the debate to the piece's journalistic shortcomings. Particularly problematic parts of the report included having on-camera interviews that were not nearly as definitive as the program's dramatic conclusions, said to be buttressed by supporting evidence from off-camera conversations and anonymous sources (see ``Sorting it Out,").
Even so, Oliver and Smith passionately defend their story. The program, they said in the introduction to their 81-page rebuttal to Abrams' report, ``neither contained a thesis nor reached a conclusion.... We made clear that the story was based on statements by soldiers, airmen and military officials."
After ``Valley of Death" aired, top military officials denied nerve gas was used; one of the broadcast's confidential sources challenged the report's veracity; and key witnesses disputed CNN's account, including pilots on the mission who said they had told the producers they were carrying tear gas but were ignored. CNN's follow-up on June 14 pulled back somewhat from the story's initial bold assertions. And on July 21, the Pentagon's six-week investigation into CNN's charges concluded that nerve gas was never used during the Vietnam War and the men on Operation Tailwind had never encountered defectors.
While taking responsibility for having seen the script ahead of time and still having aired ``Valley of Death," both Kaplan and Tom Johnson, chairman of CNN News Group, place much of the blame for the fiasco on the way senior executive producer Hill managed the project and the newsmagazine, keeping them isolated from the rest of CNN--a view vehemently supported and angrily denied by various factions of veteran CNN producers and correspondents.
Hill's unit was considered the A-team, with the best-paid and most experienced staff members, but ``she thought she was her own network," says Kaplan, who says he hadn't heard word one about ``Valley of Death" until about two weeks before it aired. ``That's not the way it works at a network. When you do a sensitive story, you make sure your management knows about it." Arnett agrees that Hill's unit was secretive, and as a consequence, he says, ``we didn't have checks and balances in that department. It was the culture of that particular investigative unit that allowed this to happen."
But others disagree. The fallout from ``Valley of Death" is not about Hill and the unit, say current and former producers. It's about CNN. Everyone who read the script--including Kaplan, Johnson and the network's attorney--approved it, basing their judgment on the trust they placed in the journalists who had produced it. But by abandoning their gatekeeping role, say critics, they left CNN open to the disaster that followed.
That ``Valley of Death" could appear on CNN and in Time magazine despite its flaws ``shouldn't be dismissed as an aberration, but seen as a biopsy from a system that suffers from a serious pathology," says Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter for Time who is now writing books and teaching journalism at Georgetown University.
The controversy, he says, ``represents most ominously of all, with the media at large, a very disturbing trend" of senior editors becoming increasingly more gullible, and a tendency for more and more journalists to work in the realm of possibility rather than truth. ``You don't print possibilities when they can destroy individual and national reputations," he says. ``The stakes are too high."
A PRIL OLIVER DEVELOPED THE TAILWIND pril Oliver developed the Tailwind story using characteristic enterprise. In the spring of 1997, her boss, Hill, asked her to check out a book by John Plaster called ``SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam." Oliver's reporting led to ``The Secret Warriors," which kicked off the fall '97 season for CNN's newsmagazine ``Impact" on September 14. It contained, according to the broadcast, ``the untold stories of U.S. soldiers used intentionally as bait; chemical agents used, though banned by international protocol; and American troops possibly killed by U.S. air strikes." Oliver hoped the revelations of incapacitating agents would create a buzz in the print media. But ``Secret Warriors" fell flat. ``There was silence, absolute silence, in the press," Oliver recalls.
About the time Oliver was wrapping up ``Secret Warriors," Rick Kaplan joined CNN as president. His appointment was widely reported as an important step for CNN, which had come into the market as an innovator in the early '80s but whose success seemed largely at the mercy of major breaking news events.
Kaplan also was perceived by some as a threat, arriving as CNN management was eliminating 230 jobs to cut costs, even as he was allowed to bring in a stable of talent from his old network, ABC. At the time, CNN was in transition, faced with sagging ratings and competition from upstart cable news channels MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Kaplan, bringing in fresh blood and new ideas in an effort to reinvigorate the network, angered the CNN traditionalists, says retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, who resigned in protest from his position as the network's military analyst over the handling of the Tailwind controversy. ``They think [Kaplan's] destroying the network," he says, using tabloid techniques ``to get the ratings up."
As CNN's new president, Kaplan promoted synergy, the latest profit-enhancing trend in an increasingly competitive media market. Synergy meant Kaplan could cross-promote Time Warner's products by launching TV newsmagazines based on collaborative work between CNN and the company's print magazines. One newsmagazine would be ``NewsStand: CNN & Time," which would replace the existing newsmagazine, ``Impact," a show Kaplan thought ``uneven."
In September 1997, as Oliver began researching the Tailwind story, Hill assigned Jim Connor to oversee the investigation. Connor, a 25-year news veteran, had worked at NBC as the network's national political producer before arriving at CNN in 1990, where he became No. 2 in the newsmagazine unit. From September to February, Connor ``was actively involved" in the reporting, Oliver says. She kept him apprised of her progress as she tracked down tips about the possible use of nerve gas in Tailwind and a purported mission to hunt down and kill defectors.
In October, Oliver says she told Connor of a breakthrough: In a telephone interview, Robert Van Buskirk, a Tailwind platoon leader, said he knew lethal gas had been used on the mission. As a source, Van Buskirk had the sort of background that would lead critics to assail his credibility: He had co-written a 1983 book called ``Tailwind" that failed to mention nerve gas or defectors. He had spent time in prison for allegedly running guns (all charges were eventually dropped) and had been on medication for a nervous disorder. None of that, though, invalidated his account, Oliver says.
As she reported, Oliver says, she constantly updated Arnett on her findings. And, she says, she circulated a 10-page memo outlining her evidence to Connor; Hill, the unit's chief; and Hill's former second in command, John Lane. Lane, who had retired, worked on the project as a consultant, according to Kaplan.
Lane, whose credentials include stints as vice president of NBC News and CBS News, had worked with Kaplan before. He had, in fact, been one of Kaplan's mentors and had helped put him on the road to CNN's presidency. ``John Lane is an idol to me," Kaplan says.
Connor also assigned Oliver a supervisor in Washington: 62-year-old Jack Smith, a political producer for CNN, formerly CBS-TV's Washington bureau chief and another of Kaplan's trusted mentors. Smith and Lane went way back to their days as newspapermen in Chicago in the '60s, where they had met Kaplan. ``Jack is one of the finest human beings I know," Kaplan says. ``I have more respect for Jack Smith than for anyone I can think of. I would trust him with my life." Lane and Smith, Kaplan says, ``were like family to me."
Lane and Smith also remained close friends. ``I love Jack Smith," Lane says. The three linked up at CNN, where Smith hired Oliver and saw in her some of the same qualities he had seen in a young Rick Kaplan.
T HE TEAM ASSEMBLED, HILL AND and Connor laid down the ground rules, Oliver recalls. Smith, working with Oliver in Washington, would ``make sure all your i's are dotted and t's are crossed," she says they told her. Connor continued to provide close supervision, Oliver and Smith say, while Hill, based in Atlanta, had more intermittent contact. Connor, who divided his time between Washington and Atlanta, ``received every interview, approved every interview request, approved the budget, approved the outline, approved every version of the script," says Oliver. ###
Oliver, 36, ambitious and smart, had done well at CNN since she arrived in 1994, say those who worked with her (see `` `I Will Be Vindicated,' "). With a Princeton degree and six years of experience producing documentaries and reporting for the ``MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," she was not as seasoned as other investigative reporters in the CNN unit, but she was among the newsmagazine's bright, young stars.
It is generally agreed that Hill's magazine unit produced ``some of the finest work at CNN," says one senior executive. Hill's reputation as a workaholic is legend, as is her attention to the visual details of a story, her tendency to play favorites and surround herself with loyalists-- smart, sophisticated, ambitious journalists. Some who have worked for Hill are fiercely critical, but others are equally devoted and dismiss her detractors as less successful or capable than her champions, resentful because they failed to make the A-team.
The critics, award winners among them, complain that Hill emphasizes style over substance, that she knows far more about documentary filmmaking than painstaking investigative reporting and that the team she entrusted to assemble ``Valley of Death" lacked the investigative skills necessary to put together a complicated expos¨„ of a top-secret operation. ``I'll stand on my record," Hill says, declining further comment.
Hill's record is impressive. She has spent more than 30 years in television, much of it producing award-winning documentaries. Under her direction, ABC's ``Close-up" unit won numerous awards. During her eight years at CNN, her production and reporting teams won 13 CableAce Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards and two Joan Shorenstein Barone Awards.
``Pam has always been committed to doing TV journalism that is serious, interesting and engaging," says Nurith Aizenman, a former CNN associate producer who is now managing editor of The New Republic. ``I really hope that picture of her isn't lost."