Both CNN and Time have launched investigations of their joint story, “Valley of Death,” that was aired on their new TV magazine show, “NewsStand, CNN & TIME” on June 7. Time, and presumably CNN as well, are also taking a hard look at a companion story that ran in the June 15 issue of Time titled, “Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?” by April Oliver and Peter Arnett, the CNN staffers who respectively produced and narrated the TV show. Their answer was that we had used deadly nerve gas in Laos in 1970 in a Special Forces action called Operation Tailwind.
They also charged that the purpose of this operation was to find and kill American military defectors working with the enemy in Laos and that poison gas had been used to kill them. Secretary of Defense Cohen promptly ordered the military to investigate the charges. Special Forces veterans, our famed Green Berets, were outraged by the charges. They denounced them as totally false and ludicrous, but their complaints were given little publicity by the media.
CNN claimed they spent eight months researching the story, interviewing over 200 people. But that only makes the quality of the reporting look worse. One could understand, but not defend, getting the story so wrong if the program had been slapped together in a rush to get it on the air for the June 7 debut of “NewsStand.” But when that much work produces such major falsehoods the only explanation that comes to mind is malice-reckless disregard of the truth.
On June 19, Tom Johnson, the chairman and CEO of CNN, told me that they had been deluged with complaints about the program. One of them was a long letter from Accuracy in Media, exposing the flaws in CNN’s reporting. Johnson said he sensed there was something wrong with the program, and he said, “If we’ve blown it, we’re going to say we’ve blown it.” A thorough investigation was being made, and he promised to be as hard on themselves as they would be on anyone else.
We also sent a long letter to Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of Time, pointing out the errors in the article by Peter Arnett and April Oliver that Time had published. Isaacson thanked us for the letter, saying that he too had ordered an investigation and that the Accuracy in Media letter would play a part in it. He assured us that he was determined to get at the truth. He said he had informed CNN of this, telling them that if the charges were proven to be false, Time would say so and correct the record.
If Johnson and Isaacson keep their word, they will have to make the mother of all apologies. In 1993, when Dateline NBC was exposed for having faked test crashes to show how some General Motors pickups would burst into flames, the president of NBC News and several Dateline employees were fired. In our view, CNN’s credibility will be irreparably damaged if it doesn’t fire its president, Richard Kaplan, Baghdad Pete Arnett and the other perpetrators of this debacle.