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

According to the network's website, "The Pentagon was pleased by CNN's 54-page retraction."

The Department of Defense later released its own lengthy review that denied several of the allegations presented in CNN's Operation Tailwind story. Some of the key sources in the "Valley of Death" segment, like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer and a participant in the operation named Robert Van Buskirk, had talked to the DOD in the wake of the CNN broadcast:

[Van Buskirk] reported that he had no knowledge of the use of Sarin or the targeting of defectors, and he felt that April Oliver had asked him "trick" questions. General Vogt said that he had no memory of anything "remotely resembling" the use of Sarin gas or the killing of American defectors. He said that he found the CNN story "absolutely unbelievable" and categorically denied ever having received or issued such instructions. Thus, neither Admiral Moorer nor General Vogt believes that Sarin gas was used during Operation Tailwind or that defectors were targeted or sighted during the operation.

The Department of Defense also published the transcripts of their interviews with Tailwind participants and military officials.

On The Newsroom, after the story has already aired, a few staffers speak up about having harbored uncertainties; sure enough, similar doubts eventually came to light in the real account, too. CNN's onetime military adviser Perry Smith had been "highly skeptical" of the Tailwind story from the start. Like Jim, Don, and other members of the news team, though, he backed off from his objections as the reporting progressed. He wrote about it in the December 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review:

I learned about CNN's June 7 report on Operation Tailwind -- a Special Forces mission that took place in Laos in September 1970 -- when I got a call the previous Wednesday from a friend who had seen a short CNN promotion of the broadcast. He gave me a brief summary: The United States had used deadly nerve gas against American defectors. I was highly skeptical; I had flown 180 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam and had never heard even a suggestion that anyone had used poison gas.

I called my nominal boss at CNN, Gail Evans, to ask some questions and express my concerns. She told me that she would call me back. In the meantime, I telephoned a number of experts on the Vietnam War, military historians and biographers.

During my first 24 hours of probing, I came up with one person who told me "it might well have happened," while others told me that it could not have happened or that they were unaware of the incident.

On June 4, I made my first mistake. I left a message on Evans' answering machine saying that I was going to "back off" from my objections since I had found one person who thought the horrendous incident might well have taken place. I should never have made that phone call based on one source, particularly when many others disagreed.

When the story aired, it was "much worse" than Smith expected; he spent the next week investigating the story himself, contacting "about 200 people in [his] military brain trust," including "Gene McCarley, the Special Forces commander on the ground during Tailwind; three of the Air Force Skyraider pilots who flew in support of Tailwind (including both of the pilots who dropped the gas); and one of the Marine helicopter pilots who rescued the embattled Special Forces team on the last day of the operation." He then "bombarded" CNN's chairman and CEO Tom Johnson with e-mails "raising point-by-point refutations about each allegation in the broadcast." He realized he was making no progress, and resigned in protest from CNN a week after the story aired.

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.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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