An Embarrassing Time
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, September 1998|
An Embarrassing Time
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.
W ALTER ISAACSON GUSHED ABOUT Time's latest ``great adventure"--a journalistic collaboration with corporate partner CNN.
In a full-page To Our Readers column in the June 15 issue, the magazine's managing editor trumpeted ``with terrific pride" a freshly minted TV newsmagazine that promised to be ``a smart marriage of print and television journalism."
Instead, the inaugural broadcast of ``NewsStand: CNN & Time" quickly degenerated into one of the biggest journalistic embarrassments in the news weekly's 75-year history.
Time and CNN had launched an earlier version of their ``journalistic experiment" in March 1997, called ``Impact: CNN and Time on Special Assignment." Time reporters and editors produced ``Impact" segments throughout the show's 15 months on air. But ``NewsStand" premiered in June with a new twist on Time Warner's foray into the media synergy game: lengthy CNN-reported stories published in Time. And the first was a blockbuster--the tale of clandestine U.S. commandos secretly dropping deadly sarin nerve gas to kill American defectors in Laos at the height of the Vietnam War.
It took CNN producers eight months to assemble the Operation Tailwind story; Time editors had the print version of the story for less than two weeks before it went to press.
The Time story, written by April Oliver, the CNN producer who led the charge on the Operation Tailwind investigation, was given to John F. Stacks, one of three executive editors at the magazine. Stacks also received a rough cut of the TV segment and a 156-page briefing book put together by Oliver and CNN senior producer Jack Smith. Stacks, who had worked on ``Impact" stories, substantially rewrote Oliver's draft, transforming it into a magazine article--but he did not tone down the story's explosive charges.
Stacks says he was swayed by the detailed briefing book. ``It was a very convincing document," he says. The briefing book later was described as ``a piece of advocacy" by Floyd Abrams, the lawyer hired by CNN to investigate the story.
Before leaving town three days before Time's Saturday deadline, Stacks sent the edited story and the TV script to the Washington bureau for feedback. He handed the story off to Time senior foreign correspondent Johanna McGeary in New York for a second edit.
Veteran Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson and Deputy Washington Bureau Chief J.F.O. McAllister voiced concerns about ``the substance and the sources and the evidence of the story," says Time Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy. Some changes were made, Duffy says, but he declined to talk about the bureau's problems with the story and refused to allow others in the bureau to discuss them.
Isaacson acknowledges that the Washington bureau expressed some concerns, but stresses that no one in Washington suggested that the story be killed or held. He adds: ``"Nobody was there yelling, saying, `Don't run this story, don't run this story.' In retrospect, I think everyone wishes there was."
McGeary, who did not return telephone calls from AJR, listened closely to Thompson's points, according to Oliver. Time was dropped from the CNN/Time logo that was originally on the piece, Oliver says. In addition, McGeary approved changing the headline into a question: ``Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?" Two weeks after Time published the story, the magazine announced its own investigation of Tailwind in the wake of heavy criticism, with Thompson and Duffy leading the effort.
Isaacson, who read the original piece before it was published, says neither Thompson nor Duffy produced a report, but instead transmitted information as it came in via e-mail and over the phone. They shared their information with Abrams. On July 2, Time retracted the story, saying Thompson's reporting matched the findings of the Abrams report.
CNN has taken most of the criticism for the Tailwind story, and the network publicly apologized to Time for the fiasco. But some critics believe that Time has gotten off lightly, arguing that the magazine's editors should have been much more skeptical. ``Partnerships don't allow you to abdicate your own editorial process," says Steve Geimann, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee.
But Stacks says the editing process for the CNN story was no different than the process for a staff-written article. ``I deal with a lot of pieces from correspondents from around the world. I edit them. The managing editor reads them, and this was done pretty much the same way," he says. ``It was the kind of mistake that can be made with any reporter."
In the magazine's apology to readers in the July 13 issue, Isaacson wrote that Time editors ``have learned a lot from the mistakes made." But in an interview, Isaacson could only point to a single lesson: to be wary about ``the dangers of reporters who zealously...believe in a particular story, grabbing at facts that support the story and ignoring those that don't."
Ted Gup, a former Time investigative reporter, says the Tailwind story is just the latest and most visible example of Time's ``propensity to risk its own credibility in exchange for a journalistic coup." In an article for Salon, an online magazine, Gup wrote: ``I had seen too many stories in which healthy skepticism was surrendered before a rush to create `buzz.' Never did I see evidence of outright fabrication, but rather something more insidious--an atmosphere in which expedience won out over common sense."
Stacks dismisses the criticism. ``I don't buy the notion that we or CNN or Time Warner was forcing this into the magazine to make a big splash," he says. ``The piece was flawed, but it was flawed for its own reasons, not corporate reasons." ###