The News vs. The Newsroom: Can One Report Bring a Network 'to Its Knees'?

CNN fired April Oliver and Jack Smith, the story's principal producers. Both sued; Oliver alleged that she was wrongfully terminated, and Smith claimed that:

he was unfairly fired for reporting on the U.S. military's use of nerve gas in Vietnam's "Operation Tailwind." Smith's $100 million defamation suit claims that he and fellow producer April Oliver actually got the story right, only to have their reputations and careers ruined when the network caved in to CIA pressure to retract the story. The network previously settled out of court with Oliver for $1 million after a deposition by Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "pretty much confirmed Oliver and Smith's reporting." However, the terms of the settlements are sealed.

CNN paid "an undisclosed sum of money" to Smith to settle out of court.

All told, the damage from the Operation Tailwind story was both expansive and long-lasting. According to a 1999 New York Observer article, "The cable network last year fired two producers, sacked correspondent Peter Arnett, split up its investigative team, issued a public apology to veterans and the estate of Richard Nixon, plastered a harsh retraction on its Web site and installed a new quality control vice president, yet its Operation Tailwind debacle refuses to stay safely consigned to the past.

"CNN has already paid costly settlements to 11 veterans who appeared on it. The network still faces nine defamation suits, filed in courthouses in Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Little Rock, Ark., and other places. On July 20, a judge in Washington, D.C., ruled over CNN's objections that two of the nine suits can proceed and depositions should begin."

But a year after it aired, Oliver was still defending the story -- and, like Jerry does, she argued that she and Smith had become "scapegoats." In the July/August issue of American Journalism Review, she wrote,

One independent investigator, a military veteran, has found support for our findings during his six-month research effort. He is buttressing his reporting to withstand the denials that can be expected from the Pentagon and CNN. Others, including reporter Dennis McDougal, who conducted a four-month investigation for TV Guide, believe our research on this CIA-approved mission had substantial merit. Even lawyer Floyd Abrams -- no friend of the June 7, 1998, broadcast -- conceded it was based on "exhaustive research." In addition, I have revealed in court papers that a leading critic of the broadcast, retired Gen. John Singlaub, was a prime source for our story.

Yet Smith and I were fired for not reaching a retroactive burden of proof imposed on us by CNN's executives. We were fired even though our bosses knew the depth of our sources and had been warned in a written memo that our story would likely generate controversy and Pentagon wrath.

Put simply, I feel we were scapegoated so CNN could preserve its highly valued and all-too-friendly relationship with the military. During the Tailwind controversy last summer, CNN's executives and the Pentagon operated as a virtual joint venture to crush the story. The fact is CNN needs the Pentagon's ongoing cooperation for the 24-hour network's immediate access to U.S. military operations.

In 2010, filmmaker Kevin Tumlinson tracked down and interviewed some of the soldiers who had participated in Operation Tailwind, including some of the men interviewed in the CNN report, with the help of attorney Jim Moriarty.

"I was just shocked that anybody even remembered it, let alone had something on television," squad leader Keith Plancich said. "The more I watched it, the worse it got. There was nothing in that entire broadcast that was true."

"I think April Oliver misconstrued, for whatever reason she wanted to, what I said," Robert Van Buskirk said. "And she changed a lot of what I said. I said things off-camera to her, and I think some of the things she edited, she edited intentionally to change what was there.

"That's pretty harsh," he added. "A woman decides she's got an agenda and she's gonna put it on tape and call it history, and then she gets people all around her to go along with the lie."

The Newsroom: On September 11, 2012, the News Night team, already embroiled in Genoa fallout, finds another story "creeping up on them" -- the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

As early reports come in, staffers initially wonder if the amateur propaganda film The Innocence of Muslims links the growing protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the attacks in Benghazi, but some become skeptical of any connection as more news arrives. As they present the story to Will, Mackenzie interrupts their meeting with the news that the network has to retract the Genoa story on that night's broadcast.

"We just stopped being good," Will explains later to Jerry's lawyers. "We didn't trust anything anymore. We reported the same thing as everybody else, even though we knew we were probably wrong."

The news: In the time frame depicted on The Newsroom, reports and interpretations varied between stations and shows. On MSNBC's September 12 morning report, Way Too Early host Willie Geist said that "both incidents were reportedly in reaction to a little-known amateur movie produced in the U.S. that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad. It gained attention overseas in part because an obscure Florida pastor began promoting it."

After the news of Ambassador Christopher Stevens's death arrived, though, CNN's Anderson Cooper hosted a conversation that raised the question of whether the two sieges on American consulates were, indeed, both related to The Innocence of Muslims.

"It's a huge event if one of these happens. The fact that two of these happen on the same day, the 9/11 anniversary, where Americans are remembering those that we lost?" said CNN national security correspondent Fran Townsend. "You have to ask yourself, what are American officials trying to understand about this, and whether are not these are related. This notion that it's about a movie, Anderson -- see, there have been calls for the protest in Cairo. Egyptian officials understood there was a protest planned. How did this day get picked? How did it wind up in two places?

"To have lost an American," she began, and then redirected: "I don't think we should underestimate the significance of this."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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