CNN’s TAILWIND STORY STILL HAS LIFE

By: Allan Wolper

New Story To Corroborate Oliver-Smith Broadcast


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.



Allan Wolper’s “Ethics Corner” column appears monthly in
E&P. He can be reached at alfyjournal@msn.com.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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