Ethics Corner.

'TAILWIND' TWISTER

Journalist calls CNN retraction of nerve-gas report 'ridiculous'

After CNN fired her husband 30 months ago, Marilyn Smith thought about
downsizing her daughter's wedding. "Jack was out of work, and my daughter
was worried," recalled Marilyn, her voice hardly able to control itself. "I
told her, 'Honey, don't worry, I just scratched the Kaplans off the guest
list.'"

Smith, 62, is a former nurse turned media maven who lobbies reporters to
re-examine the story that cost her husband his place in journalism while
warning them to be wary of faint-hearted news executives. Like Rick Kaplan,
the man Jack Smith hired out of college 30 years ago and mentored to the
presidency of CNN-USA, part of the Time Warner empire.

"It makes me so angry and sad that my husband's sterling reputation can be
quashed by bosses who don't have the courage to stand behind their
reporters," she said, referring to Kaplan, whom CNN canned last summer due
to low ratings.

Kaplan next month will become a visiting lecturer at Harvard University's
John F. Kennedy School of Government and someday will be invited to testify
in his mentor's $100-million defamation suit against CNN.

A moment for background. CNN fired Jack Smith and April Oliver after they
co-produced a June 1998 broadcast titled "Valley of Death" that alleged
U.S. troops on a mission called "Operation
Tailwind" sprayed sarin nerve gas on Americans who defected to Laos during
the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon went ballistic, insisting it never used chemical weapons.

It got Adm.Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs during the
September 1970 mission, to recant his on-camera confirmation of the gas
assault.

CNN, rushing for cover, retained Floyd Abrams, the country's best-known
First Amendment attorney, to analyze the eight-month investigation. And he
did it -- in two weeks. The 54-page report he co-authored with David
Kohler, a former CNN counsel, is the go-to document for reporters. It said
Oliver-Smith overstated their case and suggested that CNN retract its
story, which it did.

What the report doesn't mention is that Kohler vetted the "Valley of Death"
broadcast, working with the producers in the editing room. His postmortem
role reeked of conflict of interest.

So it's easy to see why Marilyn Smith sees conspiracies everywhere. "I used
to think the good guys would win, because we'd go to court and we'd be on
Court TV and the whole world would see it," she mused. "But my daughter, a
lawyer, pointed out that Time Warner owns Court TV. And there goes that."

Smith and Oliver weren't the only "Tailwind" casualties. Peter Arnett,
CNN's celebrated war correspondent who interviewed three on-camera sources,
narrated the program, and shared a byline in a Time magazine article
written by Oliver, also resigned. As did Pam Hill and John Lane, two other
CNN senior producers.

Then Kaplan, CNN Group President Tom Johnson, anchor Frank Sesno, and
executives Jim Connor and Peter Bergen all backed away from the story.

Now comes word they might have made a mistake.

Steve Weinberg, a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and
a former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE),
is writing an extensive article for The Nation that will corroborate the
Oliver-Smith broadcast.

"The paper trail shows they did a great job," Weinberg said. "It was a very
thorough piece of journalism. They just did a helluva job of reporting --
and for that piece to have been disowned was ridiculous."

The lawsuit paper trail also points in that direction.

Oliver won a huge settlement from CNN halfway through Adm. Moorer's
deposition on the defamation suit she filed against the network. "Moorer
pretty much confirmed Oliver and Smith's reporting," explained Weinberg.

Oliver's CNN deal is sealed. But details have emerged. She made a $300,000
down payment on a six-bedroom, six-bathroom house in Bethesda, Md.;
received money for the college tuition of her two children; paid cash for a
new car; and is attending law school full time. Add taxes, a lawyer's fee,
and you get $1 million, about $1.5 million less than Kaplan's CNN buyout.

Still, Oliver, like Smith, has been unable to convince The New York Times
to report on her lawsuit. They say it's because the Times won't contradict
Floyd Abrams.

"He is their counsel," said Jack Smith.

Dave Smith, the Times' media editor, doesn't think the lawsuits are news.
"We spent a good amount of time examining the legal papers," he said. "We
found she presented an inadequate case. And any charges that we skewered
our coverage because of Floyd Abrams is absolute nonsense."

Meanwhile, Jack Smith, teaching at Loyola University of Chicago, his alma
mater, fights for a new journalism life. "CNN needed to preserve its
relationship with the Pentagon, so I got fired," said Smith, 64. "My
reputation is besmirched. I wouldn't hire me after 'Tailwind.'"

But things can change. Stay tuned for The Weinberg Report.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Editor & Publisher Co.