CNN Wrestles with Tailwind Fallout

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

The fallout over Cable News Network's retraction of
its "Operation Tailwind" nerve-gas story has swept the network up in an
unprecedented whirlwind of controversy, change and corporate intrigue.

The week following the network's retraction and
apology for the story had more drama and plot twists than a daytime soap opera, and it saw
CNN:

• Fire April Oliver and Jack Smith, senior producers
of "Valley of Death," the highly publicized 18-minute story that alleged that
the United States military used nerve gas on American defectors during the Vietnam War.
The story was the showpiece of the debut of the network's new Sunday-night series, NewsStand:
CNN and Time
.

• Install vice president Rick Davis as an ombudsman
for the newsroom.

• Retain star correspondent Peter Arnett after a
high-noon showdown with top brass that came after intense pressure by the U.S. military to
fire him for his role in the nerve-gas story.

• Keep Rick Kaplan as CNN/USA president, despite
severe criticism -- and calls for his resignation -- from a number of CNN staffers.

In a series of internal "Town Hall" meetings
early last week, CNN chairman Tom Johnson heard staffers' heated complaints about
management's handling of the Tailwind story, but, according to a CNN spokesman,
Johnson made it clear that he had confidence in Kaplan, a former ABC News executive, whom
he hired last year.

Kaplan told news organizations that he considered
resigning, but he changed his mind after deciding that he had not played a significant
enough role in the retracted story's editing.

Johnson himself offered to resign, according to published
reports, but he was rebuffed by CNN founder and Time Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner.

Pamela Hill, senior executive producer of the show, did
fall on her sword and resign, however. And Time magazine ran a full-page apology
for the story from managing editor Walter Isaacson.

Arnett, who was initially reprimanded by Johnson for his
role as correspondent for Valley of Death (his byline also appeared with Oliver's in
the print version of Operation Tailwind, which ran in Time), also became a
lightning rod in the affair.

High-profile military figures -- including retired Major
Gen. Perry Smith, a military analyst for CNN for seven years, who resigned in protest of
the Tailwind story -- publicly lobbied for Arnett's dismissal.

The star reporter -- who won a Pulitzer Prize for his
coverage of the Vietnam War in 1966 with the Associated Press, and who became famous as
CNN's man in Baghdad, Iraq, during the Gulf War in 1991 -- was summoned from his
vacation in Oregon for a faceoff with Johnson in Atlanta. He defended himself by
explaining that his role in the story was minimal, and that he primarily asked scripted
questions to people who had already been extensively interviewed.

Johnson accepted Arnett's version, saying in a
prepared statement that the reprimand stood. "No further personnel actions are
planned," he added.

But Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel, said
CNN didn't fire Arnett "for one simple reason: They wanted this to end.
Otherwise, there would have been two more weeks of damage control. The real issue is: Will
[Arnett] be there in six months?"

CNN spokesman Steve Haworth denied Ailes' charge.

Asked to describe how the network viewed the effect of the
Tailwind story on its credibility, he cited the independent examination and report on the
story by lawyer

Floyd Abrams and the network's subsequent
"complete apology." He said CNN hoped that its viewers shared its belief that
those were "the right things to do."

Haworth also cited the network's naming Davis as
executive vice president of editorial standards and practices. According to a statement by
Johnson, Davis will review all "long-form and investigative reports," as well as
other stories, for "journalistic accuracy and fairness."

Rival cable-news chiefs reacted with a combination of
sympathy and one-upmanship. Ailes said one of his first moves at FNC was to appoint John
Moody as vice president of editorial to act as an internal watchdog. He said he was
"surprised to learn that [CNN] didn't have someone in that position."

But Ailes added that given "the realities of the
[news] business" -- including pressures of time, money and competition -- mistakes
would continue to be inevitable. What news organizations have to do, he said, is to
"get the mistake out quick, admit it and move on."

On that score, he said, "CNN has done a pretty good
job."

Bruno Cohen, senior vice president of business news for
CNBC, said the network isn't making any special changes in its editorial policies as
a result of the CNN controversy. Noting that even a decimal point in the wrong place could
be disastrous for the network, he said, "Our standards have been high, especially
with business news."

But he spoke for many news executives when he said,
"The nightmare that has occurred at CNN is what every news editor and journalist
lives in dread of."

For all of the controversy that the Tailwind story has
generated, local cable systems said they haven't gotten any feedback from
subscribers.

"We haven't heard anything," said Phil
Urbina, head of community and government affairs for Daniels Cablevision in Carlsbad,
Calif. "They aren't venting to us."

"There's basically been no response at all at the
local-system level," said Jeff Unitas, vice president of public affairs for Time
Warner Cable in Syracuse, N.Y.

But the publicity may not die down soon. Fired producers
Smith and Oliver have been on the media warpath, defending their report and ripping CNN,
and they are promising a point-by-point rebuttal of Abrams' investigation, which
concluded that the central thesis of the story wasn't currently sustainable, and that
the broadcast "was not fair."

Related